The Glorious Heresies: Lisa McInerney

glorious-heresiesAn intruder breaks into Maureen Phelan’s apartment. Without thinking, she brains him with a Holy Stone, a religious relic. Worrying over the dead body and the blood seeping into the grout on the kitchen floor, she calls her son James, a gangster, to deal with the mess. James asks his old friend Tony Cusack to help, figuring that Tony—who doesn’t have a job and is trying to raise six children on his own—needs the money and can be relied on to keep his mouth shut. Tony recognizes the corpse as Robbie, a junkie, and lets the name slip to Maureen, who then starts to see Robbie’s sad ghost wandering around the house. When Georgie, Robbie’s girlfriend, starts looking for him and comes to Tony’s house asking questions, things start to get complicated. Throw into this mix Ryan, Tony’s 15-year-old son, embarking simultaneously on a career as a drug dealer and his first love affair; Tara, a nosy woman preying on people under the guise of doing good; and a religious cult called Christians Active In Light, and things get very complicated indeed.

Lisa McInerney uses the murder and the ripples it creates to open a door into the underworld of Cork—a world peopled by gangsters, whores, drug dealers and alcoholics. People on the make, trying to survive and make a go of it—or not. It’s a small world where everyone is linked in some way to everyone else, and there is no escape.

The history of Ireland permeates the pages, especially the grip of the Catholic Church. Maureen visits the now-abandoned Laundry, where unwed mothers used to be sent, and where she would have gone if she had been born a generation earlier. In spite of escaping the Laundry, she has been scarred by the fear of “the priests, the nuns and the neighbours”. Thinking that there is “nothing as cleansing as a fire”, she sets a country church alight, much to the horror of her son, who is beginning to regret bringing his mother back from London.

McInerney writes in short, punchy sentences that bring this world alive, and the characters practically leap off the page. They have depths that are revealed as you get to know them. Maureen is a wonderful creation—feisty and perceptive with a shrewd understanding of what the world can do to people. Ryan’s truculence hides a more sensitive side, a musician “whose fingers had the grace for concertos so long as there was no one there to hear them”. There are moments of lyricism in the midst of all the mayhem: “He was out of booze and in no shape to get more; he was logey from the heat and too caught up in the kaleidoscope of memories to want to leave the house. The children had scattered in the sunshine.”

This is McInerney’s first novel and won the Bailey’s women’s prize for fiction. I can see why. It is a rambunctious novel, full of black humour, that pulls no punches.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child—JK Rowling, John Thorne and John Tiffany

So yoharry-potter-and-the-cursed-childu thought we’d come to the end of the Harry Potter story…well, think again. JK Rowling, with some help this time, has written another instalment. This one takes place 19 years after the events of the last Potter book, and the plot revolves around Harry’s second son, Albus Severus Potter. (Note: I’m writing this on the assumption that the readers are familiar with the Harry Potter books/movies.)

Harry, now an employee in the Ministry of Magic, has a difficult relationship with Albus, who doesn’t want to be the son of a famous father, especially as he feels he could never live up to him. Not only does he have Harry Potter for a father, but he is named after two men whom Harry admired—so no pressure there! On his first train ride to Hogwarts, Albus meets Scorpius, the son of Draco Malfoy. The two not only become friends but the Sorting Hat puts Albus in (gasp) Slytherin! There are rumours that Voldemort had a child, and some suspect that child is Scorpius. Then Albus decides to travel back in time with his friend to put right something his father did. But you cannot change something in the past without it having ripples in the present…

My frustration with this book was the first 30 pages felt very fragmented, as we are rushed through a bit of background. I felt like I couldn’t settle on anything because I was hurried on to the next scene. It settles down eventually, but the play still felt like there was a book trying to get out. And a novel would have done justice to the story—because it is a good story. That is something you can rely on Rowling for, with or without co-authors. Maybe it works on stage but as a book, I could have done with more depth and detail.

A Passion in the Desert: Thomas E. Kennedy

The title oa-passion-in-the-desertf this book is borrowed from a story by Balzac about betrayal and mistrust, two threads running through the book. The third is love, with all its inadequacies and flaws.

Fred Twomey is a creative writing professor, married with two sons. He has a reasonably good life—married to Jenny, an artist, with two sons and a good job, liked by his peers. But there are tremors in this seemingly perfect world.

As the book starts, he is at a conference, where he almost cheats on his wife but manages to back away before anything happens. He loves Jenny and is terrified that she will find out. Should he tell her? He senses that Jenny is drawing away from him as he is falling in love with her again and doesn’t want to push her away further. But does infidelity lie in the action or the intention to act?

Then there is his older son, Jimbo, named after Twomey’s brother. Jimbo the brother shot himself when the son was a child. And now Twomey is growing apart from his older son and cannot find a way to reach him. How can he love him when he understands him so little?

So far, these are crises that a lot of families go through. But there is a darker strand to this book. Twomey starts to notice small things going wrong—the tyres of his cycle are frequently flat; the sculpture of a child-like doll Jenny is working on is found holding a knife; and someone has been writing in Twomey’s notebook.

There is someone is haunting this story: a watcher, a stalker. Someone whose father had abandoned him as a child, leaving him vulnerable to abuse. Full of rage, he has been spying on his father’s comfortable life, determined to make him pay. And an act from Twomey’s past—the “passion in the desert” of the title—comes home to roost.

This is an extremely well-written book. The tension comes from the fact that the entire story is seen either from Twomey’s perspective, which is narrated in third person, or from the stalker’s, narrated in second person. There is no omniscient narrator. You get the feeling that you are in their heads. Although the second person narration does put a little distance between the reader and narrator, it is still disturbing.

Kennedy writes perceptively about relationships and the different facets of love. And how we betray and are betrayed by those closest to us, and somehow find a way to live with it.

My Father’s Zoo: Esther David


Review by Sadhana Ramchander

How many people you know grew up in a zoo? How many people you know have a father who started a zoo? This is the stuff of my own childhood dreams (before zoos became bad places), and I became very excited when I saw this book at the Hyderabad Literary Festival 2016. I bought the book, met Esther David who had come for one of the sessions, and told her how fascinated I was by the idea of the book!

I really enjoyed reading this small book. Esther David’s father Reuben David (1912-1989) set up the Hill Garden Zoo in Ahmedabad, which later became the Kamala Nehru Zoological Garden. A veterinary doctor, Reuben grew up with animals and had a way with them that surprised and amazed people. He opened a a clinic for dogs, and was working there when the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation decided to make a zoo around Kankaria Lake, and invited him to set it up.

‘My father’s zoo’ is about how the making of this zoo, and how it slowly filled up with animals and birds – flamingoes, bearcats, orangutans, brown bears, anteaters, tigers, lions and many others. There are interesting stories and incidents about each animal that was brought in. Hallagulla – the angry langur, Shikha, the homesick sarus crane, Vanraj and Vanrani – the rescued lion cubs that survived because of Blackie the dog who fed them along with her pups, about Parvati, the three-horned, six-legged bullock that was bought off from a sadhu who was exploiting it, and so on.

Writes Esther, “It was amazing to see father playing with a full-grown lion as if a lion was his pet dog. I often saw father in Montu’s cage as it was the laboratory for his experiments in co-existence. He had Montu from the time he was a cub and had introduced him to other animals. So Montu lived with two dogs, a tiger and a stump-tailed Macaque. They lived in total harmony but later, the tiger Raju was given another cage as Montu and he not only had ego problems, but were always in competition for father’s attention. So instead of Raju, an Alsatian was introduced into Montu’s cage”.

Illustrated in black and white by Esther, this tribute to her father makes delightful reading for children and animal lovers.


The Neapolitan Novels: Elena Ferrante

neapolitan-novels-boxsetThe Neapolitan Novels, Elena Ferrante’s four-piece masterwork, is rightly the literary sensation of its time. The epic narrative, sweeping over decades, gallivanting across the life of a neighbourhood – a city – a country – an epoch, rummaging through the lives of the two protagonists, a pair locked in an inescapable lifelong bond, a bond formed in a childhood’s fear and wonder, the narrative grips and tears the reader along with it. In our company Elena and Lila grow from girls into women, they explore, they age; we are with them as they blossom and as they fade away. Raw human emotion burns through the loves, the betrayals, the hopes, tragedies, and disappointments of these beautiful women. Along the way, Ferrante does what all great writers do, and once she has you within the warm embrace of her novel, she moves you, she touches and caresses you.

And then, in between the second reading fiercely demanded, now a third, and if only for a while at least, life outside of her Naples, her Italy, feels clearer, the contours of reality sharper, crisper, and she does it by fudging our understandings, our beliefs, our selves.

It is brutal of course, but so is life. A hopeless, violent neighbourhood lurks in the background – soaked in a heavy, leaden, kind of poverty, the kind that nobody ever truly leaves behind – it exhausts the dreams of youth, exchanging them for dead eyes and track marks.  The neighbourhood is a place where escape is rare, its dangers fitful and sudden, shadows dancing in the candlelight. And Ferrante tells it all bluntly.  In calm, unobtrusive prose we read a wedding night rape, a sixteen year old given over to a life of routine unhappiness. Vicious beatings. We perch in the corner of the room watching this young girl, Lila, crawling across the carpet on hands and knees, crumpled helplessly under the fists of a once gentle lover. A man turned into a beast by the need to be a man. As this man-beast, the real man, stalks over his wife, the girl, through swollen lips and blood-stained teeth, smiles at her silent, gaping toddler, ‘daddy and I are playing, we are having fun’.

But life is not only brutal, and neither are the four-pieces of this elaborate jigsaw. There are the brief glimpses of burning passion, the dazzling hopes invested by both women in a vain and shallow hearted man, hopes we always know can only end in betrayal. There is the mundane. Be it disappointing, unfulfilling sex in the form of Elena’s husband’s laborious, aching, orgasms. And sex, Lila can do without. Motherhood too is unsentimental in Ferrante, children can disappoint, they get in the way. When they don’t, and cue the title of the last installment, they can break your heart.

The soul of this tetralogy is a cast of neighbours, friends, acquaintances. An elaborate, intricately woven web of characters gradually eaten away by time. Fading from the picture, they lose their shapes, perhaps briefly returning as shadows of somebody we once knew, but only to fade finally into the dust, overwhelmed – or rather, in the final reckoning, underwhelmed by life.  Perhaps we find them dead, alone, in a shit and piss covered train car with a needle still in their arm. Or, simply, they might just clutch their chest, gasp in one final gulp of the neighbourhood, and then keel over.

This story is confronting, it is ambiguous, it escapes at the very point when you feel you may have captured it, it exceeds just as it reduces, and more than anything it embraces. It is about masculinity, feminism, vulnerability and strength. It is about freedom, In Ferrante’s world, life is a struggle to break free, to win the right to create oneself, a struggle which can never be completely successful. The neighbourhood, restricting social expectations, poverty, ignorance, violence, life is full of traps to escape.  In the end this novel is neither here nor there. It is reflective, and it is powerful because it feels like life, and it shows us just enough of ourselves, just a glimpse. And we should listen when Ferrante tells us that ‘unlike stories, real life, when it has passed, inclines toward obscurity, not clarity.’

50 Must-Read Books in Translation

Books in translation smallWhen we started the reading challenge two years ago, we planned to read, between us, a book from every country in the world. Books written originally in English didn’t take us very far, so we either read in other languages (French, Spanish, German) or looked for literature in translation.

Fortunately, translations into English are growing, so it is easier to find books by authors writing in other languages. The 50 books listed in this article on FlavorWire are a start. If you want to read about some of the books we’ve read for the challenge (not all in translation!), go to the reading challenge category on the left of the screen. And if you want to join us, please contact me by posting a comment to this article.

In the meantime, enjoy this list! How many have you already read?

50 Works of Fiction in Translation That Every English Speaker Should Read


Crow Country: A Meditation on Birds, Landscape and Nature—Mark Cocker

crow-countryThere is something primeval about crows and ravens, which is probably why they often get a bad rap in fiction. They are often portrayed as the harbingers of bad tidings and connected in some way to evil. And when we are not seeing them as some sort of malign influence, we ignore them—they are, after all, plentiful and not beautiful, unlike kingfishers or peacocks.

But there is a lot more to these birds, and using them as a projection of our fears does them a grave injustice. The corvid family—which includes crows, raven, rooks, magpies, jays and many others—are not only the most intelligent among birds but also among animals. They are self-aware, recognizing themselves in mirrors (which most animals can’t), and able to use tools. This intelligence is one of the reasons that I have been fascinated by them for a long time.

So it was only a matter of time before I picked up this book. Mark Cocker is a nature writer who has been following roosting rooks near his home in Yare Valley, Norfolk. His obsession with rooks started almost casually. Lying in bed, half-awake in the early morning, he had got used to listening to their cries as they flew over his house, “the notes clattering on to the road and the rooftops of the village like flakes of tin”. Then one afternoon, at dusk in November he caught sight of a long silent procession of rooks and jackdaws flying to a roost in the valley. He decided to go looking for the roost, and was enthralled.

The book starts with him watching for the evening roost. The rooks and jackdaws arrive in huge numbers—there are often 20,000 birds or more in a flock—and settle noisily on the fields in a “vast, undifferentiated mass”. As the sun goes down and the light disappears from the sky, a hush falls upon the flock. There is not a sound. No one has been able to figure out why this happens, but it happens every sundown. Then a group of rooks heads for the trees. This is the signal the others have been waiting for. The sky is suddenly filled with the rooks and their cries, moving like “a gyroscope of tightly packed fish”.

The mass of birds also touches deep within Cocker. The swirls of birds in the sky are “like inkblot tests drawing images out of my unconscious. … the flock blossoms into an immense night flower”, stirring “something edgy into my senses”.

With this beautifully written scene, Cocker lays out all the elements of the book: the naturalist’s perspective on the behaviour of the birds; the sheer beauty and wonder of the spectacle; and the way it takes him back into himself, into an almost meditative state.

I’m not going to go into all the things I learned from this book but I will share one. The difference between rooks and crows: rooks are sociable creatures, moving in vast numbers and sharing everything, including sources of food. Crows are solitary and fiercely territorial creatures. So when you see a solitary crow, it’s a crow; more than two means they’re rooks.

This book is a journey that Cocker takes you on. He approaches the birds both as a naturalist and the effect they have on him. I was expecting something more straightforward, but thoroughly enjoyed this—the writing was beautiful (I have been reading his columns in the Guardian Weekly, so I was expecting that) and the indirect way he approached his subject, oddly enough, made it more interesting. All in all, a pleasure to read. I’ll end with a quote from Mark Cocker that sums it up:

“This book is all about that moment, about the ritual and the elements of the natural world—the light, the environment, the birds, myself—which create it.”

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell: Susanna Clark

jonathan_strange_and_mr_norrell_coverEngland, early 1800s. The country is at war with France under Napolean. Magic—the practical kind, anyway—has not been seen in the land for hundreds of years. The only magicians left are theoreticians, men who had never caused a “leaf to tremble upon a tree or made one mote of dust alter its course”. But all that is about to change.

Enter Gilbert Norrell, a practicing magician. A recluse, he lives in an old house in Yorkshire, surrounded by his precious books on, and of, magic. He is attended to by his manservant, Childermass, himself no stranger to the occult.

Norrell is determined to make English magic respectable again. He travels to London to offer his services to Sir Walter Pole, the minister of war. Sir Walter refuses to take him seriously. “Magic is not respectable, sir.” But this rejection only makes Norrell more determined. He sees his chance and decides to revive Sir Walter’s fiancé, Emma, who has just died. But Norrell’s  powers as a magician are not powerful enough to bring back the dead. For that, he needs to put aside his normal caution and call upon “old magic”, far more dangerous and unpredictable. The fairy he summons is not cute little thing with wings: it is a “gentleman with thistledown hair”, cold and treacherous. The gentleman strikes a bargain with Norrell: in return for bringing Emma back, he gets half of whatever life she will have.

It works. A grateful—and convinced—Sir Walter allows Norrell to help with the war.

Meanwhile there is talk of another great magician in England. In Shropshire, Jonathan Strange, a feckless son of a landowner, discovers by accident that he has a talent for magic. Wanting to learn more, he goes to London to meet Norrell, who takes him on as a pupil. Strange reads about the old magic of the Raven King and is intrigued, but Norrell refuses to talk about it, saying that it was the reason English magic had fallen into disrepute. Strange, however, is determined to bring it back, with or without Norrell’s help.

In the meantime, the gentleman with thistledown hair is whisking Emma off as soon as she is asleep to dance all night in his Kingdom of Lost-Hope. Emma is going crazy, and no one can understand what is wrong with her because the spell prevents her from talking about it. When she tries, what comes out is completely unrelated to what she is trying to say.

Things slowly come to a head—Jonathan awakens a long-sleeping magic, the gentleman goes a little too far, and Norrell watches helplessly as his life’s work is slowly undone.

The sprawling book pulls you into an alternative reality where you can believe that an entire fleet can be conjured out of rain, and horses out of sand and ocean. This is a modern Victorian novel, both in the writing and the many, vividly drawn characters who inhabit it. There is not enough space here to do justice to the many twists and turns of this tale. Some of the action takes place in extensive footnotes peppered throughout that also detail the history of English magic.

But essentially, this is a book about knowledge and the power it brings. Norrell denies Strange the knowledge he craves because he doesn’t trust him with it, and so brings about the very thing he dreads—the breaking down of the barriers between the old magic and modern England. The two men at the heart of the book couldn’t be more different from each other: Mr. Norrell, cautious and pedantic, whose knowledge comes from books; and Jonathan Strange, flamboyant and reckless, who does things by instinct. And the third man who is also at the heart of the book is the gentleman with thistledown hair, conniving and manipulative, who will stop at nothing to take anyone he wants for himself.

At almost 800 pages, this is not a quick read, but it is a complex, layered book and a pleasure to get lost in.

V. By Thomas Pynchon

v-thomas-pynchonA conventional review of V. is hard to write. There is no plot, not much of a lesson, no real conclusion, no moral to be gleaned. It loosely follows a quest for V. across the globe. But ‘loosely’ is the operative word. What V. is no-one can say. Indeed, it is one of the biggest puzzles in the book, and is left unanswered. Rather, most of the story is an homage to pure, unaffected cool; cowboy hats, bar fights, ‘yoyoing’ on the subway and hunting crocs in the sewers of NYC. The writing is so causal, so effortless you wonder if Tommy P. even knows he is writing the stuff that carves new cult crazes.

The only reason V. didn’t become a literary whirlwind is probably, because it is a tad hard to read. Especially at first. Pynchon mercilessly brings new characters into the fold from nowhere, making you freak out, thinking you forgot them from some hundred pages back. But often they do just pop out of nowhere, and most of them are irrelevant anyway. Much of the whole book is pretty much irrelevant plot-wise. Instead it’s an atmosphere you’re imbibing; you can skim pages and just drift along for a good hundred at a time. Readers are guided through a web of barely connected subplots that could, individually, all be the basis for a novel in themselves. Some display a mind-boggling depth of imagination.

But to be fair, it’s a little more complex than just zoning out and drifting along in a charmed stupor. Occasionally Pynchon will stop you in your tracks: while gliding you across continents and decades of time, he sometimes lands you in some dark corners of history. A bizarre story set during the 1904 Namibian genocide is a particularly emotive example. The fiction suddenly becomes very real, and harrowing.  Because the book is so detached and amoral in style, you can feel a bit alienated at times. Not only that, but the historical accuracy of these settings sits in bizarre contrast with the book’s general surrealism. Makes even the most fantastical of the book’s stories seem like they could have actually happened.

In total; the book could be described as an unstructured tale about mankind. Its scope certainly circles miles above man, characters, emotion, and gives you a glimpse of something bigger and undefined. And it’s all condensed in one trailblazing odyssey you couldn’t comprehend without diving in. I have never read Pynchon’s magnum opus, the revered, feared, mammoth ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’. V. showed me I will need at least another six month’s leg stretching before trying to climb that mountain. But I imagine the book is a good base camp for acclimatizing yourself to the consummately unique way that Pynchon can challenge and inspire his readers. Best of all, his casualness makes him seem completely insensible to his own talent, which I like a lot. And all this without giving readers a plot, or characters you can relate to, or anything you would ordinarily expect for your money.

The World’s Oldest Library Reopens: The Guardian

fez-libraryKhizanat al-Qarawiyyin, located in the old medina of Fez, is widely believed to be the oldest library in the world, dating back to the ninth century. It was founded by the daughter of a wealthy merchant. Once it is restored, it will be open to the public.

“‘It was like healing wounds,’ says Aziza Chaouni, a Fez native and the architect tasked with restoring the great library. …

“The must of old books permeates the reading room, and the copies feel fragile and dusty, wearied by years of disuse. Some are wrapped up to prevent them disintegrating in your hands.

“‘The people who work here jealously guard the books,’ says one of the caretakers. ‘You can hurt us, but you cannot hurt the books.’ …

“The Qarawiyyin library was…founded by a woman. In the ninth century, Fatima al-Fihri, the daughter of a wealthy merchant from Tunisia’s Kairouan, arrived in Fez and began laying the groundwork for a complex that would include the library, the Qarawiyyin Mosque, and Qarawiyyin University, the oldest higher education institution in the world – with alumni including the Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides, the great Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun, and the Andalusian diplomat Leo Africanus.

“‘It has to continue to live,’ [Chaouni] says. ‘I hope it will open soon, and the public will come and enjoy seeing the manuscripts for the first time. But I also hope that the people from Fez will use the space like a second home. The library’s value is not simply to preserve it for tourists, but that it is functioning.’

Read the full article:

Photo: Kareem Shaheen