Debut Roundup for Books Ireland, September/October

Posted by Sue Leonard on Wednesday 10th October 2018

Follow me to Ground. Sue Rainsford. New Island.  

Ada lives quietly with her father. They’re not like other people; Ada wasn’t born, she came from the ground, and her father is fond of hunting, naked and on all fours. Yet the locals flock to them, because they have the powers to heal.

When Ada starts an affair with a ‘Cure,’ Samson, her father isn’t best pleased. Neither is Olivia, Samson’s conniving elder sister, who, recently widowed and pregnant, comes to Ada for treatment. Are they right to be worried? Will Ada’s desire lead to life changing events for her, and the local community?

The pages turn through the complexities of character, rather than plot. Rainsford challenges us as she changes our perceptions of who and what they all are. And what of the power of the ground, and of their habit of burying the most complicated cures?

In general, I’m wary of such strange tales, but Rainsford drew me in from the first page. Her writing is poetic and sumptuous, and her world is an easy one to step into. Through Ada, Samson, and Olivia, the author contemplates the complexities of desire. She ponders, too, the importance of autonomy, and of knowing one’s life is truly valued.

Sue Rainsford has quite prodigious talent. From the relatively gentle start to the malevolent end, this debut will keep a discerning reader in a happy, hypnotic state.


He is Mine and I Have No Other. Rebecca O’Connor. Canongate. 

At fifteen, Lani Devine is lonely. It’s small town Ireland in the nineties, and she spends her spare time loitering in the graveyard, watching a boy who attends a grave there. Then she meets him at a disco, and the two start a passionate correspondence. When her friends start warning her against Leon Brady, she ignores them, until his dark secret emerges.

There are other things occupying Lani too. She falls out with her best friend Mar, ‘who is becoming like all the other girls- enveloped in a thick fog of fag smoke, cheap talk and soap operas.’ She’s embarrassed by her mother, pregnant again at 44, because of the thought that ‘they are still at it, at their age,’ and when the dog is run over, her intense grief is tinged with a sense of guilt.

I loved O’Connor’s sense of place and of time. It was those days when you never saw a jogger. ‘Just groups of middle-aged women swinging their arms and waddling their arses around certain, well-worn routes.’

Editor of Moth, Rebecca O’Connor already has a book of poetry to her name. And there is lyricism is this gorgeously told story of a girl’s coming of age. Interspersed with the text, are the haunting stories of girls, burned in an orphanage fire, and buried in an unmarked grave.

This debut shines! I have never read a novel which conjures the pain and longing of first love as well as this one. It brought me back to my own teenage years with extraordinary clarity and sharpness.


Promising Young Women. Caroline O’Donoghue Virago.  

At the start of this sparkling debut, Jane Peters is adrift. Aged 26, this average middle- class woman is living in London. She has an undemanding job in advertising, and, in her spare time is an agony aunt – running a popular blog with the name Jolly Politely.

Then everything changes. Her long-term boyfriend leaves her, but at work, things start looking up. Winning a pitch, she attracts the attention of Clem Browne. An older, married man, he promotes her, but only after she’s made a drunken mistake which leaves her with white hot shame.

At first all goes well. She’s obsessed with Clem, welcoming his sexual attentions, and if her friendships with workmates Darla and Becky suffer, that’s surely a price she should be willing to pay.

She thrives on the work, thinking up a genius campaign for Think Gym – a kind of retreat that promises over worked women that it can help them feel like a person again – but her idea is hijacked by Clem. Taking all the credit, he starts to side-line Jane.

Things deteriorate with sickening predictability. Jane’s health suffers, as she, literally, starts to fade away. Later, when she, finally, realises the way she’s been manipulated, she admits to a friend, that at the start of it all, her life sucked. ‘And I think I needed to see how bad it could get. Sometimes you need to see how bad you can fuck up to find out how much you’re able to recover.’

It’s astonishing to realise that this exploration of the trials of millennials was conceived and mostly written before the ‘Me too’ movement gained ground. A book for our time, it’s this summer’s absolute must read.

The author, who comes from Cork, is a London based journalist who edits and writes for, and it’s clear that she has her finger on the pulse of the stresses of modern day living. She’s produced a brilliant debut: Fresh, smart, deeply funny and timely.


Mind on Fire. A Memoir of Madness and Recovery. Arnold Thomas Fanning. Penguin Ireland

This powerful memoir opens at Heathrow Airport. At the height of a manic phase, the playwright, and debut writer, Arnold Thomas Fanning, rips a defibrillator off the wall, deciding he needs it for his make-believe journey to rescue the survivors of a Tsunami. Police remove him, but he returns, intent on yet another rescue mission. We live, precariously, with Arnold, through several terrifying days of delusion.

Depressed as a teenager, Arnold’s battles with his mental health escalated with the death of his mother. For a decade, from 1998 to 2008, he was often suicidal, and at times delusional. He suffered his first breakdown whilst on retreat at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Annaghmakerrig, but having recovered, went into denial, and subsequently enjoyed a happy relationship, living in New York. But the reprieve wasn’t to last. At his lowest point he lived on the streets of London and was lucky to escape with his life.

This stunning account of exactly how it feels to be mentally unsound, is based on the authors memories and diaries, backed up by his medical notes, and input from friends and professionals who knew him at his worst. It makes for the most compelling account of mental illness that I have ever read.

‘Depression is a way of feeling and a way of being. It is all-consuming, all-encompassing. It is a way of life, the only life, an anti-life. Within it there is no without it. It is numbness, at skin level and at muscle level, and at cell level. It is also a cold fog that envelops the body from head to toe, freezing in its grip. It is also a physical pain felt throughout the body, as well as a mental pain that throbs throughout the brain.’

Beautifully structured in three parts, this memoir reads almost like a thriller. And that it ends well for the protagonist, whose bipolar is now happily under control, is a bonus. Because there were times, in the reading, that the happy working and personal life the author now enjoys seemed quite simply, an impossibility.

Published in Books Ireland Magazine, September 2018.

© Sue Leonard. 2018


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