Debut Roundup for Books Ireland. September and October, 2017

Posted by Sue Leonard on Tuesday 17th October 2017

Sally Rooney. Conversations Between Friends. Faber and Faber. 

I’d heard hype about Sally Rooney long before I saw her debut, so it came with a weight of expectation. Often such advance praise does a writer a disservice, but from the first page of Conversations with Friends, I knew I was in safe hands.

Trinity students Frances and Bobbi were once girlfriends. They’re now close friends who perform poetry together. When they meet Melissa and her actor husband Nick, they’re mesmerised; and when Melissa asks to photograph them and feature them in a magazine article, the four of them meet regularly, at dinners, launches and parties.

The narrator, Frances, feels in Bobbi’s shadow. Although she is brilliant, pretty, and an expert at the perfect putdown, she constantly worries about the impression she’s creating. Whilst she’s fascinated by the other three – and is busy observing the building closeness between Melissa and Bobbi, she’s equally interested in herself. And when Nick makes a tentatIMG_3121ive advance, it’s not long before the two of them embark on an affair.

Things hot up when Frances and Bobbi fly to France to join the married couple on holiday. Acting passively, Frances is surprised to note that she’s the sort of person who would accept an invitation from a woman whose husband she had repeatedly slept with. ‘This information was morbidly interesting to me,’ she muses.

Filled with feminist wisdom; with culture, and no little humour, this debut is pitch perfect. Advance critics have compared Rooney to Salinger. I was reminded of the early work of Margaret Drabble, but updated for millennials, and I predict an equally long and glittering career for this writer.

 

Phil Harrison. The First Day: Fleet. 

Samuel Orr is a Presbyterian Minister in Belfast. Fervent in his faith, he’s a family man, yet he allows himself to become involved in a passionate affair with Anna, a young Beckett scholar. The two share an idyllic few days holiday, but when Anna becomes pregnant, everything comes to a head.

Tragedy strikes. And although the new family are able to live together, Orr’s conscience won’t allow him this chance of happiness. They part, and Orr’s eldest son, Philip, who, grieving, had tormented his father, befriends Anna and baby Sam. But has he really got their best interests at heart?

Move on more than thirty years, and Sam, lives in New York – happy in his job in the Metropolitan Art Gallery, when he gets a sharp reminder of the pains of his childhood. Can he forgive, and move on with life?

I enjoyed this finely written tale of a community in Northern Ireland which is rarely explored in fiction. The contrast between the slightly detached third person narrative of the early part contrasts keenly with the vibrant first-person narrative in New York.

This is an interesting debut – a kind of morality tale with a bitter twist.  I was intrigued by it; it’s literary, compulsive, and often chilling.

 

Love in Row 27. Eithne Shortall. Corvus. 

Cora Hendricks loves matchmaking. A London based check-in girl with Aer Lingus, she gets her chance when, for security reasons, self-check-in has been embargoed. She selects singletons to sit in Row 27 on the flights manned by her stewardess friend, Nancy Moone. Between them, they chart the success rate, and this becomes an obsession for Cora.

It’s a great premise for a novel, and Eithne Shortall, Arts Correspondent with The Sunday Times keeps up a cracking pace. Each potential couple is engaging, and the ante is upped by the frequent flyers whose lives are mapped out in more detail.

I loved the literary and cultural references that lift the novel, and identified with this description of one half of a mis-match.IMG_3125

‘He was one of those people who asked unforgivably long questions at the end of …public interviews – only there was never actually a question, just a declaration of their intelligence.’

Outside work, Cora’s life is far from easy. Her mother has been admitted to an institution with early onset Alzheimer’s, and Cora has enormous difficulty coming to terms with the loss of someone to care for her; especially as her heart has recently been broken. Will she learn to concentrate on her own love-life instead of obsessing about her success with strangers?

I enjoyed this romantic romp. The setting of Heathrow Airport, and the clever set piece at the end, make it a great holiday read. Appropriately, I finished the book in Row 24 on a flight to Paris.

 

The Last Lost Girl. Maria Hoey. Poolbeg Crimson. 

At 48, Jacqueline Brennan is stuck in life. An editor living in Donegal, she’s still mourning the loss of her sister Lilly, who disappeared back in the sweltering summer of 1976. And when her father dies, leaving a clue, she goes to an English seaside town on a hunt for the truth. But is she better off not knowing?

Lilly was 15 when she left. She was last seen on the night of a carnival. Was her fairground boyfriend Luca to blame, as the police thought? Was it Eddie, the boy she had spurned? Or was her friend’s father – known to eye up young girls to blame? Nothing is clear.

Switching between the past and the present, this is a haunting tale from an author with a great deal of talent. Jacqueline is an intriguing character; she’s self-aware and not immediately likeable. A loner, she dislikes children.

IMG_3123Her sister, Gayle, remembers that before Lilly disappeared the younger girl was funny and inquisitive.

“Your head was always in a book then you’d come up for air, terrified you might have missed something.”

In England, she’s surrounded by misfits. There’s Dot who runs the unconventional B &B; there’s Jimmy, the strange child whose mother keeps taking off, and Magpie, a drunk who is quite as lost as Jacqueline. Why is that she feels more at home amongst these people, than she’s felt anywhere, since that long-lost summer?

I’d have preferred the exclusion of the rushed, plot-filled explanation of the past – because until that point, the truth had been leaked slowly, and with skill, but that aside, this is a redemptive tale finely told.

 

Faith Hogan. My Husband’s Wives. Aria.

When the eminent cardiologist Paul Starr dies in a car crash, three women grieve the loss of the man they believe is their husband. There’s the conservative Evie – who loved Paul first; there’s Grace, a career artist, mother to teenage Delilah, and there’s Annaliese, a model and all round spoiled, flaky millennial.  But who, they all wonder, is Kasia, the pregnant woman who was with him in the car?

At the start of this saga, the women eye each other with wary suspicion, but as time moves on, their grief unites them. Without Paul in their lives, can they move on to better things?

I was irritated by this book’s premise. Why, I wondered, would apparently intelligent women remain in thrall to a man who treats them with such casual disdain? And why did none of them move on and form a more satisfactory relationship?

Once I’d accepted that this is a plot-driven book, and that the characters are manipulated accordingly, I relaxed into the warmth of the writing. Hogan holds the narrative well, and has produced an escapist page-turner. By the end, I was moved by the women’s plight. I even shed a tear.IMG_3124

 

 

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