John Boyne. Beneath the Earth

Posted by Sue Leonard on Thursday 1st October 2015

JOHN BOYNE has already proved that he’s a versatile writer.

He had written some excellent takes on historical events even before 2006, when The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas made him a household name; and he has consolidated his career since, with six adult novels, and four for children. All are fine literary reads.

Anyone doubting Boyne’s literary adaptability, should be converted by Beneath the Earth, his debut collection of short stories. Each one is like a like a novel in microcosm, and all 12 show Boyne’s deep understanding of the human psyche.

Some look to the past. There’s the prize winning, ‘Rest Day’, set in the first world war; there’s ‘The Country He Called Home’, a poignant look at Ireland’s inherent racism, and, one of my favourites, a delightful look at Agatha Christie’s dysfunctional marriage, called ‘Empire Tour’.

Humour plays a huge part in these stories. I laughed out loud in recognition at The Schleinermetzenmann.

I read this satire on the arrogance and sense of self-importance felt by certain literary figures just before attending a book launch; and his depiction of the way Arthur, a debut novelist was fawned over by an adoring audience, isn’t too far from the truth.

There was a twist in that particular tale, which shifted the reader’s view of both Arthur, and the narrator; and such surprises occur throughout this excellent collection.

Who would have thought, for example, that a professional hit man would have a literary bent?

Toastie, in ‘A Good Man’, has a house full of books, discusses John Banville with his boss, and whiles away his time whilst waiting to kill his target, by writing an essay on Dorothea Brooke from Middlemarch.

There are references to death in a few of these stories. Notably in ‘Amsterdam’, about a father’s struggle to come to terms with the death of a son; and his inability to forget, to forgive, or to live a companionable life.

His son was run over; and there’s a reference to a hit and run in ‘The Vespa’, one of a few stories featuring a teenage boy who struggles with his emotional life and burgeoning sexuality.

Seán, the protagonist of that story is an innocent; he practises conversations to try out on Tadhg Muldowney, the older, and seriously cool object of his desire.

Danny, Lizzie’s twin in the cleverest story, ‘The Haystack Girl’, is rather less benign. Narrating a tale reminiscent of The Butcher Boy, Danny tells of his parent’s marriage split and his twin’s very public disgrace depicting himself as an innocent bystander.

As the story progresses, our eyes are opened, but Danny remains in happy denial.

I’m surprised that Boyne chose ‘Beneath The Earth’ as his title story.

The brutal farmer depicted has absolutely no redeeming characteristics, and it’s tough reading of such premeditated violence. Although the writing is powerful here, it was, for me, the weakest link.

Subtlety becomes Boyne better; and he shows this best in the wonderful ‘Araby’.

The teenage narrator, abandoned by his parents, who emigrated to Canada after his father’s disgrace, lives in the uncaring house of a bereaved aunt and uncle.

He’s not attending school, and spends his days in an agony of longing for an older boy who lives nearby. His hero finally notices him and suggests he attends a game of rugby.

He does so, but this increases his sense of dislocation. This magnificent story ends in a sentence that could summarise this excellent collection.

‘That part of me that would be driven mad by desire and loneliness had awoken and was planning cruelties and anguish that I could not yet imagine.’D

Beneath the Earth is Published by Doubleday at €17.82. Kindle: €13.02

Published in The Irish Examiner, 19th September.

© Sue Leonard. 2015

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