*****Blood

scissors, blood, editing

By Maggie Gee — Far from the ordinary crime story, literary author Maggie Gee’s Blood is a comic excursion into the rough-and-tumble mind of narrator Monica Ludd. She’s 38, over six feet tall, outspoken and awkward, far from tiny with, as she is fond of pointing out, an enormous bosom. When Monica squeezes you into the rollercoaster seat beside her on page one, you’re in for a wild ride.

Monica claims to be a respectable citizen of East Kent. Doubtful. Much of the story plays out near the seacoast there and on the peninsula of Thanet. The little community, the seashore, the shops—come to life nicely. Even such a remote area has its dose of violence, terrorism, and, well, blood.

Monica has a job. She’s the deputy head in a school, loathes her new boss, and takes no pains to hide it. She thinks he’d like to be rid of her, and who could blame him?, but he rarely stands up to her.

Monica has a family. She calls them “artistes of awfulness.” She landed in the middle of a congeries of three boys and three girls, all grown up now. Ma’s in a care home, forgetting everything or choosing not to remember, it’s hard to say which. It’s Dad who drives the family disaster train. He’s a dentist who has sex with his patients in the chair. He’s a serial philanderer whose current girlfriend is two decades younger than Monica. When his children were young, he beat them. He mocks them yet. His bullying drove his youngest son Fred into the Army, and the siblings blame him for Fred’s death.

The final insult—and the inciting incident of the novel—occurs when the siblings organize an elaborate party in Fred’s memory, and Dad doesn’t show up. Monica is so angry, she says she’s going to kill him. Alas, a lot of people hear this threat, and the next morning when Monica finds Dad’s brutally beaten, blood-soaked body, even her siblings think she’s a murderer. That attack launches her impulsive and lengthy campaign of lies and misdirection. There’s truth in the old saying, blood is thicker than water, and you see it here. Her siblings’ loyalty to her through this whole saga says volumes about the sides of Monica that she tries to hide with her bluster.

In Monica, Gee has created an unforgettable character. Not only large, but larger than life. Profane and resourceful. She speaks her mind, loudly (rarely a good thing). And she is a genius at self-justification. All of which I found highly entertaining, even on the not-infrequent occasions that I was embarrassed for her.

From a crime fiction point of view, Blood is refreshingly unconventional and a reminder that violence and retribution, jealousy and fear, have been important literary themes forever. Literary novelist Maggie Gee, OBE, is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and was its first female chair.

Photo: Guzmán Lozano, creative commons license

Good Health, Good Luck, Good Reading

Beer

photo: Phil King, creative commons license

Here are a few of my favorite books by Irish writers. Grab one of these books and pour yourself something tarry. Sláinte!

Literature

    • Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha won the Man Booker Prize for its recounting of the life of a 10-year-old Dublin boy whose family is on the eve of destruction.
    • The Gathering by Anne Enright, another Booker prize-winner “has more layers to it—of grief, love, lightness, tragedy, absurdity, and trauma—than an onion, and may cause as much weeping” says The American Scholar. I felt privileged to hear her reading last year under auspices of Princeton’s Fund for Irish Studies.
    • The Year of the French is a wonderful historical tale (part of a trilogy) by American writer Thomas Flanagan. Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. Don’t know who Wolf Tone was? Read this and you will.
    • The International by Glenn Patterson, another writer who has appeared in Princeton, and his The International is the story of a single night in the bar of the International Hotel, while upstairs a consequential meeting forming the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. It’s not about militants at all but about state-of-mind.
    • You may think there’s not much new literary territory to explore in male-female sexual relations, yet award-winning author Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians finds it and mines it. Innovative, immersive, dazzling.

Crime/Thrillers

  • Tana French is an American who’s lived in Dublin for nearly thirty years. In her books about the Dublin Murder Squad, she has created what might be termed an ensemble production, as each department member takes a turn in the leading role. Of these, I’ve read Broken Harbor, featuring Dublin detective “Scorcher” Kennedy.
  • The Ghosts of Belfast, by Stuart Neville won the LA Times Book Prize for its depiction of an IRA assassin unable to come to terms with his past. Edge-of-your seat.
  • Adrian McKinty writes about crime in his native Belfast amidst the Troubles. His detective, Sean Duffy, is a rare Catholic in the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The Cold, Cold Ground is first in the series. The 2017 entry—which I would want to read based on the title alone—is Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly. I recommend the audio versions for the super narration by Gerard Doyle.


Finally, to quote another notable Irish writer, Oscar Wilde, “If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all.” Any of these is worth more than one pass!

***We Are Not Ourselves

Bronxville, movie theater

(photo: June Marie, creative commons license)

By Matthew Thomas, read by Mare Winningham – I have mixed feelings about this lengthy novel (21 hours in audio; 640 pages in print). The story follows the life of Eileen Tumulty, born in 1941, her rocky relationships with her alcoholic Irish-American parents, her thirty-year-or-so marriage, her career and experience of being a parent to her son, her husband’s early-onset dementia, and into her widowhood.

At its core, it is about relationships, yet the relationship between husband and wife remained a mystery to me, as it changed over time, and that between father and son is fully explicated only in the last pages through the rather clunky device of a posthumous letter. Though the letter was quite moving in some passages, others refer to events I did not recall “seeing” in the book. Eileen’s arm’s-length relationship with her parents carries forward; her grown-up son Connell says the hug she gives him is the first time in his memory (she disagrees) that she has ever initiated such an embrace. One of the book’s strengths is the complexity of the characters. They have strengths and flaws that shape their interactions believably.

Eileen’s a smart girl, but family finances limit her educational choices, and she becomes a nurse, when she wanted to be, could have been, a doctor. She meets and marries neuroscientist and college professor Edmund Leary, who stubbornly refuses the more lucrative and prestigious job offers that come his way. Eileen sees his choices as a brake on the family’s upward mobility.

Connell loves baseball and is an excellent young player, but Eileen pressures him to give it up to join the school debate team, which she thinks will lead to the best grades, the best colleges, the greatest success. Eileen is preoccupied for much of the middle of the book in getting the family out of their deteriorating Jamaica, Queens, apartment and neighborhood and into a “nice” house in suburban Bronxville. The family finances barely make the stretch, but she plows ahead anyway.

Meanwhile, Ed is deteriorating, and the onset of neurological decline must be terrifying to someone so acutely aware of the consequences. We see Ed struggling to accommodate. I couldn’t understand why Eileen, a nurse, takes such a long time to figure out what was going wrong with him. It didn’t seem to be denial. That aside, the author does a remarkable job portraying the challenges the family confronts as Ed’s capacity declines. Paradoxically, Eileen seems most loving and most deeply attached to him as he becomes less able to respond.

Despite the grim subject matter, the writing is perceptive and never maudlin. Thomas maintains a straightforward style much like Eileen’s own, though, for 21 hours of listening, I’d like a little more story, and occasional plotlines seemed nonessential, like Eileen’s improbable and expensive drift into the orbit of a faith-healer.

Other reviewers have praised this book highly, and it has many strengths in the writing that made me want to stick with it. I freely admit I’m not a big fan of relationship novels, so that may account for my cooler response. While it is lauded for its depiction of late 20th century mores, to me it is more significant as a cautionary tale of what can go wrong in our lives and relationships while our attention is elsewhere.

****The Long Fire

fire, night

(photo: Montecruz foto, creative commons license)

By Meghan Tifft – This sparkling debut mystery is narrated by the book’s protagonist, Natalie Krupin, a 27-year-old woman adrift in a hazy, smoke-obscured world. Her mysteries revolve around her gypsy mother, dead in a fire that destroyed her parents’ home, her unkempt father, one cheap apartment away from homelessness, and her older brother, a social outcast among his peers, a drug addict and runaway, lost and presumed dead. To a person, members of this family do not live by the ordinary conventions, and, over the generations, suspicious fires have stalked them (“wherever gypsies go, fire follows,” Natalie’s mother says). They pursue Natalie throughout.

Natalie herself is aggressively unconventional. She wears thrift-shop clothing assembled into bizarre costumes; she has furnished her apartment with child-sized furniture. Most unusually, she suffers from pica, though “suffer” is not an accurate verb, since she often revels in it, literally devouring her world. She’s as likely to eat a book as to read it. This odd character plunges into the deep family mystery when her father receives a phone message from someone whose voice sounds like her dead mother’s rasp, followed by the discovery of cryptic notes hidden in a flame-scarred cigarette case and written on the paper of a hand-rolled cigarette. Propelled by the phone message, Natalie resolves to unravel her family’s past.

This set-up for the plot cannot capture the terrific voice Tifft has created for Natalie—quirky, funny, observant, and understandably confused. For example, I particularly enjoyed a scene in which Natalie interprets her life through the koan-like platitudes found in a bag of fortune cookies: “The truth hides in small places. You must search to find it.” Truly.

Tifft never fails to surprise as Natalie sets out to discover what really happened to her mother, and whether she can find the answers in the closed-mouthed gypsy community. The more she investigates, the more secrets she encounters, involving not just her mother, but her missing brother too. Their present absences have roots in the past, and the narrative delves into the childhood of the siblings, as idiosyncratic and fraught as you’d expect, given the adult products. They were both, as Natalie says about her brother “fashioned too near the fire.”

Readers will find Natalie an engaging, unforgettable character, courageous in confronting the uncertainties of her life, wry and compassionate. Like so many novels in which characters embark on a quest, they are really searching for and most likely to find themselves. This is a literary mystery, not bound by the typical mystery/thriller conventions and, paradoxically, therefore, more revealing.

Read my interview with author Meghan Tifft for Crime Fiction Lover. A somewhat longer version of this review is on that website.