Debut Roundup. Jan/Feb 2017

Posted by Sue Leonard on Monday 3rd April 2017

Holding. Graham Norton. Hodder and Stoughton. 

Early reviews for Graham Norton’s debut have been highly positive. Commenting, on the Late Late Show recently, Norton said that the public’s expectation had been extremely low. Assuming the chat show host would prove unequal to the task of fiction writing, he felt that the critic’s surprise had inflated their praise.

My copy of Holding arrived after that initial enthusiasm, and, consequently, my expectations were sky-high. Would I, therefore, be disappointed?

The fictitious village of Duneen is a sleepy backwater in County Cork. Nothing ever happened there, and the inhabitants lived quietly. But when a body is unearthed, believed to be that of Tommy Burke – a man who disappeared many years before after a messy love triangle – ripples spread beneath the apparently calm exterior of the villager’s lives.

We meet the Ross sisters; spinsters living their Big House existence after the untimely death of their parents.  Abigail and Florence stayed there to protect the traumatised Evelyn, but do they really have her interests at heart?

It was Evelyn who discovered her father’s body – when he hanged himself after his wife’s death from cancer. To compound Evelyn’s grief, the only man she ever loved, became engaged to someone else. And the exhumation has opened wounds that had never fully healed. Was  Evelyn’s rival, the wine swilling, unhappily married  Brid, responsible for Tommy Burke’s death?

Norton sets the scene beautifully as the central character, one Sergeant PJ Collins traverses the village trying to solve the crime. An unhappily obese misfit, PJ is beautifully realised; he has dreamed of conducting an investigation, but now feels out of his depth. And when the slick team of investigators arrive from Cork city, headed by detective Superintendent Linus Dunne, the contrast between the men could not be more stark.

Could it be though, that empathy and compassion can achieve more than a mainstream investigation? As the plot twists and turns, so does life improve for PJ, and in the most unexpected ways. Norton leaves us with a resolution, but with some loose ends. I liked that; it showed he has respect for his reader’s intelligence.

Norton is not going to set Ireland’s literary scene on fire, but he has produced a likeable, well written thriller with plenty of action to keep the pages turning. His main strength is for characterisation; and this sensitivity and empathy for humanity should not surprise anyone.

I interviewed Norton when his first memoir appeared, and found him utterly charming, and lacking in ego. He treated the fans who interrupted us with the utmost respect. So yes, whether you have a low or high expectation of Holding, Norton deserves the good reviews.

Himself. Jess Kidd. Canongate

At first glance, Jess Kidd’s debut appears to replicate Graham Norton’s. It’s set in a village – in Mayo to Norton’s Cork, and it concerns the disappearance of someone many years in the past. Both possible victims were ‘seen’ catching a bus the day they disappeared, but in both suspicions run rife. Both books attempt to solve these possible crimes, and in both, the villagers have layers of secrets to hide. So far, so alike. But there the comparison ends.

Where Norton’s debut is quiet – Kidd’s is filled with supernatural sounds; the dead being often more vibrant than the living. Filled with magic realism, its characters blast off the page. This is an exuberant rollercoaster of a read.

When Mahony returns to his birthplace in the Mayo hills, the residents instantly recognise him. He has his mother’s eyes, and nobody could forget Orla Sweeney. Before her disappearance, she caused mayhem in the village, and no one is keen to have her son amongst them.

Except that the long haired hippy has charm. Few can resist that roguish smile. Allying with the elderly invalid Mrs Cauley – a bewigged ex-actress intent on staging The Playboy of the Western World, he determines to find out exactly what happened to his mother. But danger lurks everywhere.

Why does everyone so fear the truth? The women of the village may have cause to fear that their husbands might be Mahony’s father; the teenage Orla Quinn had a notorious reputation,  but why is the devious Father Quinn so keen to get rid of him? And what of Annie, the former nurse? Why is she prepared to bribe the young man to leave?

It’s hard to convey just how accomplished this debut is. It combines a page-turning plot, with memorable characters, and laugh out loud humour. There’s a touch of romance, too, along with a redemptive ending.

The writing positively drips with humorous lyricism, and it never, ever flags. I’m not an especial fan of magic realism, yet I simply adored this debut. It’s not the first time I’ve said this, but this one takes my vote as the best debut published in 2016. I can’t wait to see what this most talented author comes up with next.

The Accidental Wife. Orla McAlinden. Sowilo Press.

 The Northern Irish Troubles have inspired many memoirs and novels of late; and in her debut collection of linked short stories, Orla McAlinden uses that threat of violence as a backdrop. But her tales, based on Joan McCann – nee Smith – and members of her close and extended family, concentrate as much on the everyday concerns of rural life. That these, sometimes dramatic events are inspired by the prejudices and ingrained attitudes is without dispute. And there is an authenticity in the language. Brought up in Portadown, McAlinden is clearly in charge of her material.

The opening story sees Joan trying to drive her son Rory to school. There’s a strike on, and she is determined not to give in to the threats of the loyalists on the picket line. Clearly strong, she is hurt when her husband, Dominic, accuses her of being as orange as the aggressors.

The following stories, centring on two of the couple’s children, Gemma and Rory, builds up a picture of the married couple. Then it’s back to the beginning in the title story, which shows how randomly the relationship between Dominic and Joan grew into marriage.

Some stories go back in time. Origins, returning to World War Two, describes the romantic fling that led to Joan’s birth. Others flip forwards. Joan’s sons don’t make the happiest of marriages. Jim’s wife Lucy has her own way of coping; the stories about her provide comedy with twist endings that wouldn’t look out of place in Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected.

If Dominic is an anti-hero, he inspires affection in some; but his son, Frank, an opinionated buffoon married to the social climbing Alice, is beyond redemption. I had trouble believing in the antics of this quite dismal duo; but Gemma strikes lucky in marriage.

Allying with her father-in-law, Alo, she proves a lot more adept at running the farm than her husband, Cormac. I adored reading about the generational understanding both in The Visit, a story justly nominated for a Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Award, and later in Breathing. The old man proves to have more wisdom, love, and sheer common-sense than the rest of the characters put together.

This author has a sure touch, and a real understanding for the characters she portrays. Whether writing from the point of view of a child, a grown man, or woman, there is an authenticity in their voices, or in most of them.

There were a couple of weaker links. The voice of the teenage girl in Slim felt forced. And the final story failed to convince me; but the rest of this excellent collection shows that McAlindan is a writer of great originality and promise.

The Memory of Music. Olive Collins: Poolbeg. 

We’ve been inundated with novels featuring the Easter Rising, in this, the centenary year, and some of them have featured the women who played such a heroic role. There has been less, though, about the women behind the scenes; those affected but not actively involved.  And that’s where The Memory of Music comes in. Featuring Betty O’Fogarty, a new wife who is dismayed by her husband’s republican tendencies, this debut fills the gap.

Collins doesn’t just concentrate on 1916, either. She takes her characters through the turmoil of the Civil War and the War of Independence, before jumping forwards to show the ways those early troubles impacted Betty’s descendents.

From a rural well to do family, Betty married Seamus, a violin maker extraordinaire. She is appalled to find herself in a Dublin tenement, and refuses to commune with her neighbours, until she finds herself giving birth, alone, whilst around her, there’s gunfire and mayhem.

The need to survive, in spite of her husband’s appalling business sense, brings out Betty’s canny side. She does well for her family, though the lies she tells to keep things harmonious make life complicated, to say the least.

Meanwhile her daughter, Isabel, sent to her grandparents for safety, witnesses an act, so violent, that she can never quite recover. And the repercussions affect both her daughters and granddaughters.

The third of the novel’s three parts, set in the present where old secrets are uncovered, is perhaps the least successful. But it is shown to convey just how much things have shifted for women; whilst celebrating the bravery, and the sheer strength of will of those who came before.

The writer is a fine storyteller. And if, at times, there are implausible plot lines, and too much ‘tell’, that doesn’t prevent this from being an enjoyable read. I found it compulsive, and  a welcome addition to the canon.

Published in Books Ireland Magazine, January, 2017.

© Sue Leonard. 2017.

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