The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan
It usually takes an author a couple of books to find a voice let alone recognition but Donal Ryan has found more than one voice all of which are distinct, clear, and have found him recognition via the Booker Prize long list.
The setting is small contemporary village in Ireland affected by current malaise and filled with crisp portraits of identifiable characters through their inner thoughts. The characters span from the young to old and male to female. Ryan handles this diverse collection of inner monologues with the sympathetic care they deserve. The story covers the people’s different views on ghost estates, unemployment, emigration, drug abuse, and modern detachment from friends, family and various different types of relationships. Each character’s story meshes with the next and those of the previous voices enabling Walsh to paint the picture of the village using many different colours. Even though the journey is marginally more enjoyable than the conclusion it is worth a second read.
The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín.
Colm Tóibín’s latest novel started as a monologue for the Dublin Fringe Festival in 2011, he rewrote it as a book that was published in late 2012. It is the imagined last days of Mary, Mother of Jesus Christ, as she relates her version of her Son’s his final acts on this earth.
What I remember about the stories Jesus and his Mother Mary from my 18 year relationship with the Catholic religion is that he was instantly recognised as special and she was revered and almost untouchable but the bible tells us that Jesus was the word of god made into a man and did not become a God again until he was resurrected. Tóibín unstraps those sandals and delivers to us a raw and human voice of a bereaved and bitter old woman who is looking back on a life which has robbed her of both husband and son. She is surrounded by his disciples who she does not and admits to never having trusted. Tóibín manages to make her story unique and also one that could raise empathy in any mother to grown up children. A mother who may not agree with the decisions of her son yet still loves and would still try to protect him. Tóibín highlights the dangers that a woman in her position (and era) would have faced almost as if her son was the leader of a dissident political movement. Her descriptions of Jesus (she cannot bring herself to say is name out loud) will insult people who have both faith and a closed mind. The 102 pages it fills is not an easy read. I felt I was not lending myself but instead I had to will myself through the first third, once through that I was very eager to digest this deep and brooding interpretation of a fifth testament.
TransAtlantic by Colm McCann
Zig-zagging across the Atlantic and through time in the same manner McCann leads us through some major Irish and U.S. historical events spanning over 150 years with a seamless mix of real and imagined characters.
I always like to get the feel of a book before reading anything about it so once I was deep into the second chapter I read Emma Donohoe’s quote on the back, “those who can’t see the point of historical fiction will find it here”. She nailed it because he nailed it. McCann does not wear his characters like clothes he seems to be able to channel them like a medium or inhabit them like a method actor. I almost don’t want to tell you anything about this novel because it was a joy to read from beginning to end without knowing anything about it. McCann writes beautifully about four historical visitors who crossed the Atlantic to visit Ireland two in 1919, one in 1845 and one in 1998, not only does he reveal astounding insights into their characters to a point that you could believe came from their own thoughts but he captures the mood of Ireland and the U.S. as well. Each of their visits deposits obscure clues that will not become obvious until you enter the second phase of the novel. The tone is both contemplative and optimistic as we get to know the inner thoughts of the characters all of whom have had a tangled past and live for the present so that the future will be a better place. McCann use of humour rises rarely and unexpectedly but does not break the surface or interrupt the flow of the serious subject matter of the novel. He combines physiology, psychology, sociology and magnificent attention to detail that draws us along. There is a small mystery which is enveloped in an engaging, poignant, and beautiful written set of intermingled stories.
The Man Booker Shortlist will be announced in September. You can follow the progress here.