Category Archives: Book Review

Me on Joyce & Wilde & At It Again

To tie in with my earlier post, here is my heartfelt speech from this evening’s launch of Romping Through Dubliners:

‘I first encountered At It Again, in the form of Maite and Niall, at the Oscar Wilde Festival in Galway in September 2015, and I was struck by the energy and joy they injected into Romping Through Dorian Gray, their witty guide to Wilde’s lush novel; a dynamism and irreverence that was very much in keeping with the approach taken by Oscar himself. I was also struck at that time by the great enthusiasm with which they – and happily I – were welcomed into the inner circle of those who keep Wilde’s work fresh in the public mind, a generosity of spirit that is common to all true lovers of literature in my experience.

Since the task of finding new angles on Wilde, one of the most closely examined men in the world, second only to Joyce perhaps, was thought to be next to impossible, I realised that I, with my focus on Wilde’s Women, and they, with their delightful romp through Dorian Gray, were kindred spirits who shared a belief that there is always something new to say. Their enticing approach to Wilde, Stoker and Joyce has ensured that I’ve taken a huge interest in their activities ever since.

Irish people can be justifiably proud of the wealth of great literature that our tiny island has produced, yet, sometimes, we make the mistake of being a little too reverential about the whole affair. It’s not uncommon for us to feel intimidated by the towering reputation of a writer as magnificently talented as James Joyce. As a result we may feel that his work is not for the likes of us when, in fact, it was written with precisely us in mind!

Decades, ago, when I was in my twenties and working in London, an English colleague, on learning that I was a Dubliner, rushed to my desk to talk about Ulysses, his favourite book: ‘What  bit had I enjoyed most,’ he wondered? ‘Exactly which of the Martello Towers that punctuate our eastern shoreline featured in the opening chapter?’ On and on he gushed until, finally, I had to stop him and admit that I had never read Ulysses. He turned on his heel in disgust, leaving me wondering why I, a Dubliner through and through, somehow believed that Ulysses was not for me, a book to be endured rather than enjoyed. It was the beginning of a lasting curiosity.

Dubliners, Joyce’s collection of short stories, provides the perfect entry point for anyone keen to read his work. Although published in 1914, Joyce had written the interlinked stories between the years 1904 and 1907. Publishers were wary of the forthright language and fretted about bringing out a book in which so many of Joyce’s contemporaries were immediately recognisable and might take umbrage; Dubliners, of course, were far more likely to take umbrage at being omitted rather than included. The fact that Dubliners was rejected by numerous publishing houses, including London-based Grant Richards, its eventual publisher, provides a lesson in perseverance for us all.

In writing Dubliners, Joyce held up a mirror to Dublin society with the intention of provoking a citywide epiphany. A proponent of individualism, like Wilde before him, he hoped that, once confronted with reality, his compatriots might question their circumstances and crawl out from beneath the twin yoke of church and state. Like everything Joyce wrote, Dubliners was radical and challenging; it was neither pompous nor staid. It was aimed at ordinary, decent, and not so decent, Dubliners as much as it was at scholars and academics, who were welcome to read it too.

By insisting that Dubliners is for everyone and by prompting us to engage with this wonderful city, Romping Through Dubliners, a manual, is a truly fitting companion piece to Joyce’s original. It gives ownership back to the people it was written for. It is very telling that the word ‘fun’ is included on the very first page, a word that some people, although no one present in this room I suspect, forget to apply to Joyce.

With their intriguing maps and tips for dressing up, or ‘cosplay’ as my teenage son would say, Romping Through Dubliners recaptures the immediacy that was always present in Joyce’s work. Its interactivity calls to mind the ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books that so captivated children of the 1970s and 1980s, myself included, who were invited to determine the outcome of their own quest; an acknowledged source of inspiration for the At It Again manuals. By suggesting tie-in activities such as ‘sip sherry & talk politely about death’ Romping Through Dubliners pokes gentle fun at the quirky customs and habits of Dubliners that were so brilliantly exposed in the original

The playful illustrations add vitality and capture the essence of the original. The whole ethos of At It Again, and of Joyce too, is exemplified in a quote from ‘An Encounter’ highlighted on page 14:

 ‘Real adventures do not happen to people who remain at home. They must be sought abroad’.

‘Abroad’ in the ‘here, there and everywhere’ sense of the word that is. The scope of the At It Again’ team’s ambition is illuminated by their suggestion on page 31: WHY DON’T YOU: ‘Pursue your dreams’. It gives me great pleasure to introduce Maite, Niall, Jessica and James of At It Again, a dynamic bunch who describe themselves with great accuracy as ‘cultural treasure hunters who bring Irish literature to life’. Long may they continue to do so!’

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Latest Reviews for Wilde’s Women

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Review Highlights for Wilde’s Women:

  • “A lively debut biography…sharply drawn portraits of a colourful cast of characters…A brisk, sympathetic look at an understudied aspect of Wilde’s eventful life.”
    Kirkus
  • “Fitzsimons has produced a thought-provoking and illuminating read that is sure to offer new lines of thought for even the most knowledgeable Wilde fan. Thoroughly readable and accessible, this is a must for students of Wilde of those who just have an appreciation of the man and his work. “
    We Love This Book
  • “I adored this book. It’s a fascinating, readable account and is stunningly well written. “
    Irish Examiner
  • “illuminating study of Oscar Wilde’s life… Fitzsimons does a fascinating job of reminding us that it wasn’t just the men in Wilde’s life that raised him up and brought him down, but that this troupe of exceptional women played their part too.   “
    Independent
  • “A well-written, deeply researched, and detailed biographical portrait of the many women in Wilde’s life, from his mother and wife to actresses and socialites.”
    Library Journal
  • “Lively new study.”
    Irish Times
  • “Even if you think you know all about Wilde, this highly entertaining book, packed with fascinating detail and anecdotes, will still surprise you.”
    The Lady
  • “Eleanor Fitzsimons is to be congratulated on finding a new and eminently profitable angle from which to approach him [Wilde]: the women who were so uncommonly significant in his life.”
    Guardian
  • “Highly enjoyable and generally reliable.”
    Washington Post
  • “I’m hugely grateful to Eleanor for sharing this book with me, it’s been a joy to read and is meticulously researched. You can feel her passion for the subject leaping from the pages, and it’s contagious! “
    Sheroes of history
  • “A remarkable book… the breadth and depth of research is astonishing.”
    Emma Thompson
  • “lively and comprehensive”
    The Women’s History Association of Ireland
  • ” a refreshing approach to a familiar life story – an approach which could profitably be taken with other literary figures, who have been judged, generally speaking, by their relationships with men.”
    Times Literary Supplement
  • “Worthy and useful addition …provides fresh insights and entertaining asides…brings some interesting figures from Oscar’s world into rewarding new focus .”
    Literary Review
  • “Charting Oscar’s life, Fitzsimons paints a series of vivid portraits of some of Oscar’s female friends and acquaintances, as well as providing sketches of a society in which women were beginning to emerge as influential cultural figures in the form of patrons, writers, performers and more…one of the strengths of Fitzsimons’ work is that she also revives some talented women who have quite simply been forgotten…Wilde’s Women, as much as it is intended to reveal Oscar in the light of his female contemporaries, also illuminates a moment crackling with a sense of possibility for women…what is genuinely revelatory is the extent to which those women outside his immediate circle were also affected by his downfall…Wilde’s Women captures powerful female voices and portrays a group of bold and fearless women who stood by their beliefs and by Oscar when many others would not.”
    Franny Moyle, The Wildean
  • “This is the work of a lifetime and a labour of love from Fitzsimons who has tracked down and ascertained the reciprocal influence between Wilde and the major (and many minor) women in his life.”
    The Heythrop Journal

The latest reviews for Wilde’s Women have appeared in the Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Woman’s History Association.

The TLS review is behind a paywall but highlights include:

‘The originality of this latest Wilde biography lies in its in-depth discussion of influential yet subsequently forgotten women of the fin de siecle.’
and
‘It is a refreshing approach to a familiar life story – an approach which could profitably be taken with other literary figures, who have been judged, generally speaking, by their relationships with men.’
I love this review in American magazine High Voltage!

I’m also absolutely thrilled that Wilde’s Women has been reviewed in The Guardian newspaper by the wonderful Simon Callow, acclaimed actor and a distinguished biographer in his own right.

Also thrilling is the lovely, positive review Wilde’s Women received in iconic magazine The Lady (THE place to advertise for a governess or housekeeper should you require one).

 

Wilde’s Women - cover

Additional reviews can be found below:

The Irish Times asked renowned and respected Wilde scholar Dr. Eibhear Walshe to review Wilde’s Women. There’s a link to the review here.

Wilde’s Women has also been reviewed positively by The Independent here and here, by Kirkus and by We Love This Book (book of the week) among others. There is a round-up of review highlights on my author page on my agent’s website: http://www.andrewlownie.co.uk.

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The Family of Things

I was delighted to join Helen Shaw of Athena Media recently as the tenth guest on their excellent ‘The Family of Things’ series of podcasts. You can visit the website here or listen on iTunes.

Here’s the blurb from the Athena Media Website:

Author and researcher Eleanor Fitzsimons is our latest guest in The Family of Things.

 

Eleanor Fitzsimons PR Shot

Eleanor Fitzsimons: Author of Wilde’s Women

Eleanor’s acclaimed biography of Oscar Wilde from the perspective of the women in his life ‘Wilde’s Women’ opens new windows on both Wilde and his work.

Eleanor’s beautifully written and carefully researched study was published in Ireland in Autumn 2015 and is being released in the US this year. In this conversation with presenter Helen Shaw she introduces us to Wilde’s intriguing mother, Jane Wilde, a celebrated writer in her own time, and his much suffering wife Constance LLoyd as well as the women writers who influenced and inspired Wilde.

Eleanor describes her work as ‘recovering’ lost stories of women in history and sees her journey as akin to excavating the past; bringing forth what has been forgotten or obscured.
Wilde’s Women is published by Duckworth Overlook and you can follow Eleanor’s work and story via twitter.

 

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Irish Times Reviews Wilde’s Women

I’m delighted that the Irish Times asked renowned and respected Wilde scholar Dr. Eibhear Walshe to review Wilde’s Women. I’m also very happy with his balanced and insightful evaluation. He describes my book as ‘a lively new study’. There’s a link to the review here.

Wilde’s Women - cover

Wilde’s Women has also been reviewed positively by The Independent here and here, by Kirkus and by We Love This Book (book of the week) among others. There is a round-up of review highlights on my author page on my agent’s website: http://www.andrewlownie.co.uk.

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The Undertaking: Eleanor Fitzsimons Talks to Audrey Magee

This interview appeared first on writing.ie, a wonderful resource for readers and writers.

the-undertaking-audrey-mageeIt is hardly surprising that 2014, the year during which we will observe the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, is shaping up to be the  year of the war novel. What is striking however, is that some of the most searing and poigniant novels to emerge during the early weeks of this year have been written by women: examples include The Lie by Helen Dunmore and Anna Hope’s The Wake, both of which examine so effectively the human tragedy of war. This month a new treasure was added to the canon of war literature by Wicklow-based former journalist turned first time novelist, Audrey Magee. What is surprising perhaps is that her novel, The Undertaking explores the terrible human cost of the Second World War rather than the first. Also striking is the fact that she writes from the German perspective.

Published last week by Atlantic Books, The Undertaking tells the story of Peter Faber, a German soldier fighting on the Eastern front, who marries Katharina Spinell, a woman he has never met, in order to escape the horrors of the battlefield for a few days. During their brief honeymoon in Katharina’s home city of Berlin, both are taken aback by the attraction that develops between them. Peter returns to the horror of Stalingrad, with vague hopes of a future with Katharina to sustain him, while back in Berlin, she becomes enmeshed in the higher echelons of the Nazi party. Both behave quite monstrously at times, but events ensure that their hopes of future happiness can never be realised.

It must be hugely gratifying for Magee that The Undertaking has met with a universal outpouring of acclaim, and that she is now recognised as a fiction writer of considerable talent. Yet it’s clear that such eulogising has not gone to her head; the first minutes of our time together in Dublin’s Shelbourne Hotel are spent discussing the importance of hot, buttered toast on a cold winter’s day. Tea in hand, I ask her what prompted her to write about the human cost of war, and more particularly to do so from the perspective of a very ordinary German family. Magee agrees that this is in many ways an unlikely development as her family has no German connections whatsoever, but explains that her interest is rooted in a deep desire to understand how events unfolded, perhaps the best motivator of all.

We explore the origins of this curiosity. Arriving in Germany, aged eighteen and with little more than a rudimentary knowledge of the country’s history, Magee was struck by a weird dichotomy: ‘Everyone was so normal but there was this shroud of silence, and it’s a very thick shroud, and do not go there’, she explains. She found German people to be friendly and welcoming, but tells me: ‘I became fascinated by this silence, and I became fascinated by their normality, because it wasn’t normal’. The question that preoccupied her was, ‘how did these incredibly normal people end up engaging in this?’

Three years later, having studied German in university despite not taking it as a subject for the leaving cert – ‘don’t even go there’, she laughs – Magee was living in Germany, and thoroughly enjoying the experience. Yet her need to understand the wartime experiences of seemingly ordinary German people remained. She recalls one particularly poignant incident when she visited Dachau with an American-Jewish man whose relatives had died there: ‘It was a Monday and the gates were closed’, she explains. The man was keen to fulfil a promise made to surviving family members that he would visit the camp, so they decided to walk around the perimeter instead. Along the way they met an elderly German woman who was tending her garden, and all three struck up a conversation with Magee interpreting.

The tone of this seemingly innocuous encounter changed utterly when the German woman mentioned casually that she had lived all her life in this house, which backed onto Dachau. Hearing this, the man became incensed, asking her why she had not intervened. In return, the older woman became extremely defensive, insisting that she hadn’t realised what was happening, and even if she had, she could have done nothing about it. What had been a pleasant chat descended into a heated shouting match, with Magee caught in the middle. ‘It stripped me of everything and it stripped them of everything’, she says, adding, ‘I just needed to understand and explore and to question’.

The final impetus for what became The Undertaking emerged years later when Magee was enjoying dinner with her husband in a restaurant in West Cork. Towards the end of the evening they struck up a conversation with the German owner, who told them that he had operated as a transport pilot on the Russian front during WWII. As this man described how he had married a complete stranger in order to qualify for a few days leave, the incentive for his wife being that she would be entitled to a pension should he be killed in battle, Magee realised that this was exactly the hook she needed. ‘I didn’t know what to do with it, but I knew this was it’, she says.

Before she turned her hand to writing fiction, Magee was a highly respected journalist, and covered the gut-wrenching war in Bosnia for the Irish Times. As Ireland correspondent for The Times, she also witnessed the turbulent state of affairs in Northern Ireland first hand, and the effect on a civilian population of having soldiers on the streets. I ask if her experiences in Bosnia gave her a more nuanced understanding of the chaotic reality of war. Although she agrees that the opportunity to observe soldiers engaged in a combat situation, and to see the effect this had on the civilian population, was invaluable, Magee is keen to point out that she was never a war correspondent.

‘I think that’s very important because, had I been a war correspondent, I would have become inured and I never reached that stage’, she says, adding, ‘I always found it shocking and traumatising.’ There were times when she was in personal danger. On one occasion, while travelling in a van the company of two Bosnian Serb journalists, she encountered an unexpected checkpoint, and describes the ‘pure terror’ that they all felt for the thirty seconds or so before they realised that they were safe. ‘Those boundaries shift within moments. There’s nowhere to go. I really thought that was it.  That stayed with me in terms of the chaos’, she says.

Magee believes that our conventional approach to writing history, which often requires the inclusion of a lot of detail pertaining to weaponry and strategy, is one that runs the risk of neglecting the reality that what is often at the core of conflict is chaos and indiscriminate terror. She elucidates: ‘As soon as you talk about the weaponry you’re removed and there is no hiding place in this book at all’. Yet, in order achieve authenticity and fully inhabit the minds of her characters, she meticulously researched the experience of being a German soldier fighting on the Russian front; this included not only knowing the name of the weapon he would have used, but understanding what it looked like and what it weighed, and seeing and touching the uniform he wore. She believes that this immersion was essential if she was to describe faithfully the wartime experiences of Peter and his fellow combatants. Once this was done, she then devoted considerable attention to striping all of this detail out again: ‘One of the things I really sought to do in the book was to pare it back’, she tells me.

I ask her if she believes that there is a distinction between the genders when it comes to writing about this war. Might women take a different stance, given that we were not called upon to fight? As a woman, does she believe that she approached WWII from a different perspective? Magee agrees that there is some truth in this, but attributes her approach to her experience as a journalist: ‘The boundaries have changed but traditionally the men covered the hard news and the women talked to the victims and covered the human interest angle.’ This was hugely important in shaping her experience of conflict: ‘All I could see was damage – of the men and of the women – there’s just so much damage’, she says.

One thing that concerned Magee is what degree of legitimacy she could claim in telling this story. She worried about the reaction that her involvement might provoke, and tells me: ‘every day I was paralysed by the thought, “what right have you to write this’’.  I’m not German, I’m not Jewish, I’m not Ukrainian – I’m not any of the people involved in the story’. However, she acknowledges that the themes in The Undertaking are universal, and impact on all of humanity, and in the end she clung to the fact that Heinrich Böll, the great German post-war writer and Nobel laureate, had no such qualms about writing about Ireland in his Irisches Tagebuch (Irish Journal); ‘If he can write about my country, then I can write about his’, she laughs.

Magee is greatly influenced by the writings of Böll, and others from the same great European tradition; she mentions Sartre and Beckett in this context. Her intention is to marry this rich tradition, with its huge themes, to the distinctively Irish tradition of working with a smaller canvas, as exemplified by writers such as John McGahern and William Trevor. The end result is a deceptively simple narrative that tackles huge themes, and it is fitting that her finely-crafted approach has been so well received by critics and readers alike. What pleases Magee particularly is the way in which The Undertaking has become the starting point for a wider discussion – she mentions specifically a glowing review inThe Independent on Sunday that refers to current events in Syria in the context of her book.

It saddens her that we have some way to go in order to resolve the tensions that cause us to behave in such a destructive way towards each other, she says: ‘We progress with fancy televisions and the latest phones, but we don’t seem to actually progress. We are in a better place than we were… but we haven’t got there yet’. As to the central question of how seemingly ‘normal’ people can behave monstrously at times, Magee speaks of the ‘gradual inurnment’ that she believes can happen under a political system. ‘It’s usually people responding to circumstance and there are very few of us who are truly noble’, she says, adding, ‘What’s really important is that we try to understand the impact of what we are doing to each other’. Certainly, Peter and Katharina are extremely nuanced characters, and although their actions are often monstrous, there are times when we as readers must acknowledge that they have been brutalised too. It’s a tricky balancing act, and one which Magee manages beautifully.

As an Irish writer, she is conscious that she comes at this story from a more neutral standpoint than an English writer, or indeed reader, might, and for that reason, she is extremely pleased that The Undertaking has been received so positively in England. There is huge excitement in the US too, and her book will be published there this autumn. It is being translated into several languages, although not German as yet. As this positive reception is so richly well deserved, it’s surprising to learn that the book was turned down by several publishers, at least one of whom told Magee that they were ‘not in love’ with it. Eventually, talent prevailed and she found herself at the centre of a bidding war.

We both agree, from bitter experience, that it can be very difficult for a writer to maintain self-belief in the weeks and months before a publishing deal is secured. When I suggest that, given the great success of her first novel, it must surely be easier to write number two, Magee smiles enigmatically and admits that she has indeed started a new book which is, ‘very different’; she refuses to elaborate. Now that her children are older, she has the luxury of more writing time, but progress can still be slow. Perhaps time away from the keyboard is valuable when you’re tackling huge themes that require a good deal of contemplation, I suggest. Having said that, I hope we won’t have to wait too long for the next instalment from this extraordinarily talented and reflective new Irish author

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Review of The Lie by Helen Dunmore

It’s incredible to think that July 28, 2014, will mark the centenary of the commencement of World War One. Although no longer part of the living memory of anyone save a tiny handful of people, who were children at the time, the wastefulness and horror of the trench warfare that characterised that vicious four year campaign will live long in our collective memory.

By Armistice Day, November 11, 1918, more than nine million combatants had been killed, with a further twenty million or so badly wounded. The conflict changed the direction of world history, and led to significant political upheaval, prompting revolutionary uprisings in many of the nations that took part. Understandably, it had a profound and lasting effect on the young men directly involved in combat.

The physical and psychological destruction wrought by the Great War has been commemorated by many authors, including Pat Barker, with her brilliant Regeneration Trilogy; Sebastian Faulks with his poignant novel, Birdsong; and Michael Morpurgo with his hugely successful children’s novel, War Horse. Now, Helen Dunmore has added to the canon of WWI literature by writing movingly about the worst aspects of trench warfare and its aftermath in her new novel, The Lie.

Dunmore has tackled this period before: Zennor in Darkness, her finely researched, McKitterick Prize winning novel, published in 1993, describes the events surrounding a time when the writer D. H. Lawrence and his German-born wife Frieda lived in Zennor in Cornwall during the war, and came under suspicion as German spies. A hugely respected and highly entertaining writer, her acclaimed catalogue of finely crafted prose and poetry has been praised universally and rewarded many times; her third novel, A Spell of Winter, won the inaugural Orange Prize for Fiction in 1996, and in 2010 her poem The Malarkey won the National Poetry Competition.

In The Lie, an enthralling and ultimately heart-wrenching novel, Dunmore again uses Cornwall as her backdrop and tells us the story of Daniel, a young local man who has survived the horrors of the trenches in body if not in spirit. Life has been one constant struggle for Danny, an exceptionally bright boy who was deprived of the chance of a decent future by relentless poverty. Returning from the front, he wrestles with his demons and works hard to grasp the first chance of independence and fulfillment he has ever known, but fate is conspiring against him and his future happiness hinges on the concealment of a lie told blithely in a moment of madness.

The Lie

The Lie, will be published by Hutchinson on 16 January 2014

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My chat with author Alison Jameson

little-beauty-alison-jameson

Recently I met with author Alison Jameson to chat about writing and about ‘Little Beauty’, her wonderful third novel. Our interview can be found here.

Last month I met with Irish author Alison Jameson in the lovely, bustling surroundings of Cinnamon cafe in Ranelagh, Dublin 6. We were there to discuss her third novel, Little Beauty, and her very successful writing life. Recently returned from Portland, Oregon, where she spent a year with her husband and young son, Alison is incredibly busy responding to the warm and well deserved reception that her new book has provoked. Little Beauty is set, for the most part, in 1970s rural Ireland and tells the story of Laura, the unconventional island-dwelling central character who, after a horrendous start in life, is left to deal with the consequences of going her own way in defiance of the stifling, judgemental community amongst which she lives.

As we settle down with a couple of coffees I admit that I’m absolutely intrigued by Laura, a fantastic character and a free spirit who suffers the consequences of being different. As the story progresses, Laura is orphaned early, betrayed by her neighbours and besotted with her child, the delightful product of an unsanctioned liaison of the type not tolerated in the Ireland of that time. I ask Alison if she deliberately set her novel in 1970s Ireland, a time when women were still judged harshly yet were on the cusp of making great progress. Surely a ‘Laura’ would fare better today? She agrees that this is largely the case, but expresses reservations that we may not have come as far as we think; she is convinced that even in these more tolerant times a woman who behaved as Laura did would, at very least, be considered slightly eccentric and perhaps be treated with suspicion.

Although Alison tells me that she was comfortable writing about the 1970s because, ‘I really like that era, and it’s a very interesting time in Ireland’, she admits that this is in some ways a fortuitous coincidence as she, ‘wanted to end the novel in a contemporary sense’, therefore for technical reasons, the bulk of her story needed to be set then. This thought process gives me some insight into how carefully Alison structures a story and the meticulous planning that goes into crafting each novel. She elaborates: ‘I slightly wrote the book back to front. People generally think of books as being made up of chapter one, two, three and so on but I tend to think and write in a circle, and then fit all the elements into that circle. With this book I wrote the last part first and that’s the part I really wanted to write about’. When I tell her that it works brilliantly, she smiles modestly in response.

Some of the themes in Little Beauty, like motherhood and death, are huge, emotional topics and Alison confirms that, in keeping with many accomplished authors, she taps into her own personal experiences in order to get the tone right. Life threw plenty of material her way. While she was writing Little Beauty Alison became a mother and lost her father. So profoundly did the experience of having a child affect her thinking that she abandoned the book as it was and began to rewrite it from scratch; not something to be undertaken lightly. I wonder if that level of authenticity is important to her. ‘Definitely’, she says emphatically, adding, ‘as a writer it’s important to write about things you have insight into’. As motherhood is a central theme in her story, she believed that it was particularly important to get this right and readily acknowledges that having a baby, ‘just brought out this whole other rainbow of emotions’.

Fortunately Alison’s agent, Faith O’Grady was completely supportive and agreed that what mattered was that this book simply had to be the best book she could write at that time and no less than that; if that involved a rewrite then so be it. Alison is very appreciative of this support as it allowed her to change her book dramatically and turn it into something extraordinary. It was a brave move but one that she regards as unavoidable as well as ultimately very rewarding.

Along with motherhood and death, superstition is a strong theme running throughout the novel. The book’s island setting, a place where people are confined by the elements and have a great respect for the sea, facilitates this and Alison succeeds in exploiting the theme very effectively. The claustrophobia of Irish society and the suspicion directed towards deviant people, particularly women, is perfectly encapsulated. We discuss this and both agree that the pressure to conform and to join in with the condemnation of any individual who refuses to fit in is strong.

This really is an essential element in her plot and once again her life experience fed into this aspect of the story. Growing up in rural Ireland during the 1970s, Alison believes that, although she was very young, she was, ‘obviously absorbing things I saw’. This understanding, she feels, explains why she found it relatively easy to imagine the life of an unmarried mother living on an isolated island; the complex character of Laura came to her first. The intricate relationships Laura forms with her neighbours took a lot of work to construct and I tell Alison that she captures the multifaceted interdependence of an island community brilliantly. It certainly helps that she, ‘finds great richness’ in communities such as those she discovered when she visited the West coast of Ireland at a time when she was immersed in the writing process. Little Beauty’s ‘Inis Miol Mor’ is fictitious but familiar at the same time.

‘Settings are so important for me as a writer’, she says, ‘where you locate your book really matters, the weather, the scenery, the atmosphere, the type of people and what they do are all really, really important’. She places great emphasis on the unique ‘Irishness’ of her books and believes that our national psyche is a rich and rewarding thing for Irish writers to tap into.

Little Beauty is a nuanced book and readers are allowed to decide on the appropriateness of the dramatic and often potentially damaging acts perpetrated by its characters. Alison is very clear on her decision not to set it all out in black and white, ‘I try not to tie up every little loose end’, she says, ‘real life is about questions and you don’t have the answer to everything’. There’s great wisdom and skill involved in not seizing control and spelling everything out and I tell her that I admire her ability to allow the uncertainties to remain.

At times the story that Alison tells is deeply troubling and desperately sad, yet it is punctuated with flashes of truly uplifting humour. ‘I’m very pleased to hear that’, she laughs, adding, ‘I believe in life that even when things are really diabolical there is invariably something that somebody will say that is actually, genuinely funny’. Her characters are so authentic that, as I sit back to listen to her discuss them and explain their motivation so lucidly and with great passion, I find it almost impossible to remember that they are her creations rather than real, living, breathing people. My neglected coffee turns cold. This is a master class in characterisation.

I tell Alison that she writes brilliantly about old age and the vulnerability that it can bring. ‘Thank you’ she says before explaining that she believes we as a society engage in a lot of denial about the realities of aging. In fact one of the reasons she juxtaposes descriptions of young, vibrant characters with their older selves is to remind us that life is a continuum and that, as her late father once remarked, every old person, ‘was the apple of someone’s eye once’ – in their own mind they often are still.

I had heard Alison admit to an earlier interviewer that she would feel, ‘almost ashamed’ if she hadn’t pursued her drive to write. I find that very interesting and ask her to explain how she became a successful writer in such a difficult industry where talent alone, no matter how great, is no guarantee of success. ‘It’s getting harder by the day’, she laughs, adding, ‘the difference between when my first book (This Man and Me) was published in 2005 and now is vast. The whole industry has changed so much. Everything is taking so much longer people are so much more reluctant. It used to be an editor going, “Oh, I love that, great”. Now it’s, “I’ll have to check with 25 other people”.

‘Editors used to be much more willing to follow their gut, to fall in love with something’, she says wearily, adding, ‘everybody worries about their jobs now and there’s a much higher fear factor’. Yet she is adamant that she wouldn’t criticise anyone in the publishing industry and that it’s ‘a very brave decision to take on a novel’.

Alison Jameson wasn’t always a full-time writer. When she started writing in earnest, she was a director at advertising agency BBDO and struggled to fit her writing around this demanding role, but she always believed that it was where her true passion lay. Initially it was her short stories that attracted the attention of her highly respected agent, Faith O’Grady. After that there was really no stopping her. She admits that early, positive feedback was hugely important and became a key factor in deciding to write full-time, a decision she has never regretted as she plans to write for the foreseeable future. I assure her that I, for one am delighted to hear this.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed our chat and I’ve gained some wonderful insights into the writing process. Alison’s third novel, Little Beauty is a thought-provoking and thoroughly enjoyable read, and, all going well, we can look forward to reading many more gems from the pen of Alison Jameson. In fact she confirms that she has, ‘the idea, the setting and a fair bit of the work’ done for the next one already. Alison’s humility does her credit and she finishes by telling me that what excites her most is to see her style developing and changing as she learns her craft.

(c) Eleanor Fitzsimmons

Eleanor Fitzsimons is a researcher, writer, journalist and occasional broadcaster. Her work has been published in the Sunday Times, the Guardian, the Irish Times and a number of other publications, and she is a contributor to the http://www.theantiroom.com podcast and blog. More recently she worked as the researcher on a number of prime time television programmes for RTE, including ‘What Have The Brits Ever Done For Us’ and the IFTA-winning ‘Bullyproof’. In 2012 she returned to UCD, graduating with an MA (first class honours) in Women Gender and Society. She realised that uncovering women’s hidden history is her true passion and at present is writing a biography of Harriet Shelley, first wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Her agent is Andrew Lownie and further details can be found at http://www.andrewlownie.co.uk/authors/eleanor-fitzsimons/books/a-want-of-honour-the-short-life-and-tragic-death-of-harriet-shelley

She lives in Dublin with her husband and two children.

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My Review of Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth by Margaret Atwood

I’m absolutely delighted that the wonderful Margaret Atwood will open the Mountains to Sea festival in Dun Laoghaire, which is on from 3-8 September 2013. Several years ago I reviewed her book, ‘Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth’. I was struck at the time by her deep understanding of our relationship with debt and would recommend this book highly. Here’s my review:

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BOOK OF THE DAY: ELEANOR FITZSIMONS reviews Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth by Margaret Atwood Bloomsbury 230pp, £9.99

WITH REMARKABLE prescience and a firm grasp of the zeitgeist, Margaret Atwood, Lady Oracle herself, has produced this timely and engaging treatise on the nature of debt – a concept she believes to be integral to the human condition. This is not the first time that Canada’s first lady of literature has reflected current preoccupations in her work. Her post-modern novel Oryx and Crake, depicting in the bleakest terms a devastating global pandemic, was published in 2003 just as her home city of Toronto was in the throes of the Sars epidemic. Now to coincide with the current economic turmoil resulting from the anchoring of our financial system on the shifting sands of unsustainable debt, she has written Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, a companion piece to the Massey Lecture series that the author delivered during a recent lecture tour of Canada. Each of the five chapters in the book formed a lecture and the series will be broadcast on radio in Canada starting on November 10th. Atwood maintains that her motivation for this tangential undertaking is common curiosity. She has, she claims, long been fascinated by the concept of an underlying balancing principle governing society and giving rise to the concept of indebtedness. Debt, she argues, “mirrors and magnifies both voracious human desire and ferocious human fear”. So integral is it to the workings of society that it predates humanity and forms the model underlying the functioning of all groupings of social animals, including several species of primate.

Shedding light on the world’s current predicament, Atwood makes the compelling argument that our hunter/gatherer antecedents preclude us from fully realising the consequences of paying back in the future the money we borrow to satisfy our immediate desires. We are programmed for instant gratification and unable to resist credit if it is offered. This is compounded by our unrealistic optimism about our ability to repay loans. We simply cannot be relied upon to self-regulate our level of personal indebtedness in the absence of external guidelines and regulations. Though filled with such gems of common sense, this is definitely not a book to reach for if you’re struggling to balance your personal finances. Instead this quirky little volume, weighing in at just over 200 pages, is an abstract and erudite exploration of the relationship between creditor and debtor. In asking the fundamental and quaintly old-fashioned question “is debt sinful?”, the author notes a shift in our attitudes from sinful (as believed by the hard-working, self-sufficient generation of our parents) to harmless (as espoused by the recent credit card generation) back to sinful again (according to this new credit crunch generation). Is the sin of indebtedness equally grave for both the borrower and the lender as Dr Johnson maintained? Is it possible that some seek the thrill of indebtedness in the same way a laboratory rat, when deprived of all stimuli, will choose to electrocute itself rather than withstand boredom?

Payback flows along in an accessible, conversational style that belies the considerable research and learning underpinning it. Seamlessly blending classic with contemporary culture and drawing on Atwood’s own sensible Canadian childhood, it meanders through mythology, ancient history, literature, theology and anthropology with concepts lifted from Star Trek and vivid evocations of ancient Egyptian burial rites sharing the same page. In one paragraph, Machiavelli warns of the dangers of a leader plunging his country into debt as it results in a loss of power and influence. In another, we learn that forbidding Christians from charging interest on loans gave rise to the kind of anti-Semitism best illustrated in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. Dickens’s Scrooge and Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus are described as shadow debtors, one spending with abandon having pledged his soul to the devil and the other grasping money but incurring a debt to humanity for his harsh treatment of others. Atwood’s finale, a reworking of A Christmas Carol, sees a modern manifestation of Scrooge inhabiting a chilling environmental parable. Ultimately, the author offers us a glimpse of redemption but urges us to act now or lose it forever. This slight volume, an extended essay really, grapples with some huge concepts and would make an affordable stocking-filler in these austere times. First published in the Irish Times of Tuesday November 6, 2008.

PDF is here: Review – Payback Debt & the Shadow Side of Wealth by Margaret Atwood

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My Review of Emperor: The Blood of Gods by Con Iggulden

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My review of Emperor: The Blood of the Gods is available on writing.ie

Ten years after the publication of the first book in his Emperor series, Emperor: The Gates of Rome (2003) and eight years after the fourth instalment appeared, bestselling author Conn Iggulden has completed the cycle with a much anticipated fifth book called Emperor: The Blood of Gods. This new episode opens with a vivid description of the bloody assassination of Emperor Julius Caesar, Iggulden’s main protagonist in earlier instalments and a man he has brought vividly to life. It is to the author’s great credit that this book does not suffer from the early loss of such a dominant figure. What follows is a compelling tale of bloody retribution, shrewd political manoeuvring and epic combat.

Hailed as heroes, Caesar’s twenty-three assassins, led by the traitorous general Marcus Brutus set about mapping out the future of an empire under their control. Few dare oppose them but those who do prove to be powerful enemies. The most prominent of these men is Caesar’s adopted son and chosen heir, seventeen-year-old Gaius Octavian, the man who will one day become Augustus Caesar. The young man forms an alliance of convenience with his old rival, master orator Marc Antony, once a staunch ally of the murdered emperor. Together they turn public opinion in their favour and raise an avenging army to march into battle in Caesar’s memory in a bid to restore Rome to its former glory. But victory is by no means certain, and they meet fierce resistance from Brutus and his followers.

Iggulden is a prolific writer and attributes his storytelling gene in large part to his Irish mother and seanchaí great-grandfather. In the gaps between his Emperor books he completed a five book series on Genghis Khan and his grandson, Kublai Khan; he travelled extensively throughout Mongolia in order to immerse himself in their alien world. He has also written a number of children’s book and collaborated with his brother Hal in the compilation of the hugely popular The Dangerous Book for Boys.

Earlier this year Iggulden announced a move to Penguin and a new series of historical novels based on the War of the Roses; the first of these, Stormbird will be published in October 2013. While we can all look forward to this new series and probably many more, fans of Iggulden’s forays into earlier history will be delighted to discover that his pleasure in returning to ancient Rome is palpable on every page of Emperor: The Blood of Gods.

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My review of Fever by Mary Beth Keane

Fever by Mary Beth KeaneMy review of Fever by Mary Beth Keane is available on writing.ie.
‘The name Mary Mallon once struck fear into the hearts of the residents of New York and, although a century and more has elapsed since her notoriety was at its height, the Tyrone-born immigrant is still well known to us today as ‘Typhoid Mary’. Yet while we may be aware that, as the first identified asymptomatic carrier of typhoid, Mary was held responsible for a number of deaths and incarcerated as a result, few of us know anything of her internal life and her response to being labelled an unwitting harbinger of disease and death.

In Fever, her second novel and the follow-up to The Walking People (2009), Mary Beth Keane eloquently blends fiction and fact to fill in the largely undocumented intimate details of Mary’s life and her emotional response to such tragedy. Perfectly capturing the harsh realities of life as an immigrant in early 1900s America, Keane paints a sympathetic picture of Mary, an accomplished cook whose popularity amongst the monied families of New York led to unexplained sickness and sometimes death whenever she entered their kitchens. In 1907, after one of these families hired medical investigator George Soper to identify the source of this pestilence, he confronted Mary and had her quarantined against her will on North Brother Island in the East River. There she remained for three years fighting her case and proclaiming her innocence until finally she was allowed to return home on the understanding that she would never work as a cook again. Yet Mary found it impossible to accept that a woman as healthy as she could be the cause of such devastating illness and, determined to make a decent living, felt she had little alternative but to conceal her identity and exploit her talents.

While it’s often difficult to sympathise with Mary, Keane tells her story compassionately and lets her humanity shine through. Mary’s relationship with fellow immigrant Alfred Briehof, a troubled and often feckless man, yet someone she loved dearly nonetheless, is particularly poignant. Keane’s book is a compelling retelling of one of the best known medical mysteries of our time and her version allows us to understand that although the real victims were undoubtedly the people Mary infected, it was a horrific experience for a powerless woman to be demonised and labelled a danger to society through no fault of her own.

Although we are all probably familiar with the facts of the story to some extent, Keane, a talented and lyrical young writer, succeeds in building suspense and surprising us with the twists and turns of feisty Mary Mallon’s tragic life. Recommended.’

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