MINOR MONUMENTS BY IAN MALENEY

 
 
 

People are calling this the golden age of essay writing, as more and more writers pen their own experience analogous to the society and world we live in. Have lived in. And will live in. Minor Monuments is a terrific addition to this era. And one that leaves you, to misquote the publishers, “quietly devastated”.

Minor Monuments is a perfect example of the talent and broad range of artistic license displayed by our upcoming writers. Its events are not grandiose; this is not about the ultimate suffering of a troubled person, this is about the minor moments that make a full life. The little markers that represent the who, what and where of our own personal narratives.

Ostensively about his grandfather's Alzheimer's disease, this book is about much more. For one, it is about the cognitive dissonance of an individual. Maleney writes of something which many of us “boggers” have experienced. A desperate need to escape our rural surroundings; coupled with a growing need to explain them. The hunt to find our place in them, even when we felt we never truly belonged anyway. And, as the author travels between, the dissonance between a nation, and its capital. Making a place that is unsure of where it just was, let alone where it is going.

His prose resonated deeply with me, and the gentle way in which the essays gain momentum is a testimony to the skilled hand weaving the pattern before us. It is very clear, very early on, where this book will end, but it is in what it will show us before we get there that is its true magnificence.

The tragedy, that many of us know too well, is told by Dementia, Alzheimer's and their related conditions, and is brought to bear incrementally, as the story of a district and the author himself unfolds. From Seamus Heaney's funeral, to a reclaimed bog, we see the beauty of the authors homeland, that sometimes seems frozen in time, sometimes seems lost forever. Through writing about rural Ireland, we see its modern counterpart plainly, and glimpse into a community that isn't too far flung from the many villages and towns across Ireland. And ones that have been subsumed by Dublin over the last century. Communities bound by industry, and slowly drained of life by progress.

There are moments when the author feels like a stranger in his own home, a feeling not just linked to Irish diaspora returning, but to many a country person who returns to their home county to find they revert to their former selves. The same insecurities and problems that pervaded childhood come to the forefront, and as powerful as the feeling to return was, it quickly replaced upon arrival by the desire the escape once more.

As Maleney struggles to explain to his family what work as a writer actually entails, he feels a fraud and still a child among the hard working “adults” of his home. A feeling which can be shared by most people of a new generation, believing they must justify their decisions to the previous one. While expecting no justification themselves.

Sound plays a crucial part in the essays, as it does in the authors life, and through Maleney's attempt to literally record the world around him, he helps us understand even a near perfect simulacrum is still just that, a copy, and it is in the genuine experience that true perception is found.

There is still so much more to discuss from this book. It is a crucial work on the evolution of our rural communities and the effects of the modern world on an ageing population. But also on the ageing populations effect on the younger one. On the loss of tradition and the void that it leaves behind. To be filled by something new, but not necessarily better or worse.

Maleney’s use of artistic references is ecclectic, and often nostalgic. But, in truth, it is a tragic piece. It's not clear whether the author himself has found what he is looking for by the time we reach its conclusion. But, perhaps, he never will, because that is what life is about isn't it? The journey, and not the destination. Its is about the minor monuments we find along the way, and the hands that built them.



CONSTELLATIONS BY SINÉAD GLEESON

 
 
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'Here is the fierce joy and pain of being alive.' So reads the last line of the blurb on the back of Sinéad Gleeson's “Constellations” her collection of personal essays reflecting on her experiences and what she and others can learn from them. Despite their “personal” nature, Gleeson's brings us to a point of universal understanding that is a testament to her skills as a writer and her qualities as a human being

We are very lucky in Ireland to have so many authors penning memoirs and essays putting a narrative to broader themes and events that have shaped the psyche of our nation. Emilie Pine, Lynn Ruanne and Arnold Thomas Fanning's recent books are a testament to this literary movement. And it is part of a proud heritage. (for just one example: Edna O’Brien, whose Country Girls is Dublin’s One City, One Book for 2019, is a perfect testament to this) Sinéad Gleeson, and the Constellations collection will stand proudly beside these as a powerful work,

From the beginning of the book you feel the pain of a tortured childhood, not unhappy, but desperately painful, as a degenerative bone condition emerges that will continue to haunt the writer long past its diagnosis, and the first essay in the collection. The encompassing story of religion in Ireland, of a devout childhood brought upon the surrounding demonstration of faith that we all felt in this country. The essays move on to discuss more and tell even more than that. The writer's soul is laid bare, and the brutal honesty with which she betrays her own thoughts moves the reader further. The feeling of being a parent, the desire to become one, the horror of the failing of the human mind, and of body, is woven through these essays of intense intelligence. The essay entitled “Our Mutual Friend” in particular affected me and even now when writing, months after the first reading, I feel those emotions welling up in me again.

There is a great amount to reflect upon among the pages, and I often found myself pausing in reading to consider what was being said. This is the mark of a good essayist, as the prose worked to allow for these moments, to give the reader pause before taking it up once more. Her style is tight and witty, fun and tragedy are propelled forward alongside a real-life irony that cannot be overlooked.

This collection isn't wholly about feminism, motherhood, grief, or pain; it is a book about Sinéad Gleeson. It is a book about human reactions and experience. And it displays a courage of character that endears the reader in a way that perhaps, words cannot grasp. I can barely scratch the surface of all this book is about. And for me, that's the point of it; these subjects. They, and their accompanying essays, are the constellations in the night sky: infinite.

Infinite in their capacity to express; as to, is a human being. Never just one facet, but a multitude of them, every person broken down into many parts of diverging opinions, ideas, and experiences. What these essays perhaps display the most, is how many times these things align with another person. And helps you realise that despite all our differences, we are actually the very same. This paradox is the nature of being human. And its understanding, is the true nature of empathy.


 

THERAPY HOUSE BY JULIE PARSONS

 
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A detective story with literary bite. “The Therapy House” offers, not escapism, but hard truths in fiction form.

What I like about the mystery/crime genre is its ability to morph its form, consistent in its compulsion, yet separate from any rules of genre. They can be supernatural, psychological, historical, speculative; the criminal mystery forms the through-line within it.

“The Therapy House” is a detective story. But through the eyes of the lead, former detective, Michael McLoughlin, we take a journey into the horrors of Ireland's past. An exploratory step backwards into the country's “glorious” revolution, and shine a light on those left behind in the wake of history.

Julie Parsons, has not, recently been a prolific writer. I would refer to her as a quality over quantity kind of author and though the early 2000s saw her release a number of titles, Therapy House is her first publication for 10 years. But it really was worth the wait (for those who had to wait).

The detective, Michael McLoughlin returns, now retired, his first appearance being in “Mary, Mary” back in 1998, and purchases a house next door to a supreme court judge, a judge who promptly finds himself not just murdered, but executed, just before Michael moves in. What follows is a slow paced mystery; as McLoughlin is slowly drawn into a grizzly investigation, No longer an officer, he is hired to uncover, and then possible bury, certain truths about the murdered judge. Whose sterling reputation may not be all its cracked up to be. But, this book is about more than a high profile murder.

The victims father was a “revolutionary hero” and the tale quickly begins to move backwards in time as we explore the Irish revolution through the eyes of a young serving girl, a protestant, who sees exactly what this “hero's” actions entail. Back in the present, she is an elderly woman, barely clinging to sanity. And there are too many people wanting to make sure that that McLoughlin's investigation is shut down.

Set during a heat wave, Parsons writing makes you feel every bead of sweat produced. Raising questions about the nature of heroes, and the meaning of being a public figure, as the heat grows more oppressive the narrative sinks deeper and deeper into a darkness that becomes a comment on Irish history as much a murder-mystery. Through the characters we see the full brunt of our institutions and our legacy, and not only asks was it all worth it? But also, did this even happen the way we believe it did?


Un-put-downable and deeply affecting, I found myself waking up with this book in my head. Dark, distressing and painfully honest. This isn't a novel for escapists. It is set firmly in our world. Our Ireland. And challenges you just to try and look at it the same way after you've finished reading.


 

THE COMPLETE WORKS OF J.M. SYNGE

 
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Whether you're dipping in and out, or reading straight through, there is always something to delight and entertain in the writings of John Millington Synge.

A collection of poetry, plays, and travel writing might seem like an odd book to grab off a shelf, but the content within is what makes reading the complete works so engaging. Synge may be still famous to this day for his play, “Playboy of the Western World”, and the ensuing controversy attached to it following it's première performances in the Abbey in 1913. and so, it is easy to forget the other amazing writing he did.

Stepping aside from his plays and poetry, may of which is stylised heavily, and spoken in colloquial Anglo-Irish. His travel writings is what most grabbed me. Recorded during his journeys through Wicklow, Conemara, Kerry, and the Aran Islands. What is captured within is a snapshot of Irish life and the turn of the century before everything changed.

His writings on Aran for example, are held to be the premium accounts of the island. Synge's work has the withdrawal of an outsider, and thus he is more keenly aware of the islanders tragic circumstances which they just take for par for the course. Beyond this, his writings on Kerry and Wicklow, serve to put into context the islanders struggles as well documenting some the now lost traditions of “Old Ireland”.

Also, within this book, is Synge's own journey. Beginning with his very first trip to Aran to study the Irish language we see how at first mistrusted he earns his place with the island communities. As the particular lack of judgement shown towards him of which ore recent work on the island (like Martin McDonagh's) shows the opposite. Indeed when reading not only Synge's non-fiction on Conemara and Aran, but also his plays, we see the full influence of his work on the more modern playwrights of our time. And it keenly noticed the huge influence he had on McDonagh, and later Kevin Barry in writing there major works set on Ireland's West Coast.

Synge, unknowingly at the time, has captured the West's old spirit, and his work is still used as a reference for many historians, most recently Dairmaid Ferriter in his “On the Edge.” I recommend this book for anyone with an interest in Ireland's cultural history, and his notes on the Irish language also prove for a fascinating read. On top of this, his plays, once thought to scandalous to perform can be re-examined, and when taking out the fear of the church that was so prevalent at the time, a real insight can be gained into how these people thought, and what they believed in.

At Playboy's first performance Synge was accused of capitalising on the “simpleness” of the Irish “peasant.” but in truth, looking back at his own work, and other histories, it is clear that he was dead on the nose, and further than that gave a voice for a people whom prominent nationalists took upon themselves to speak for, without actually getting to know them in truth. A great book to be re-examinted in the 21st century, and a crucial part of the cultural history of the island.

 

HARVESTING BY LISA HARDING

 
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A novel which horrifies as it heartens, “Harvesting” is a crucial piece of meaningful fiction which tells the tale we would rather look away from.

In a world which seems not just fascinated, but obsessed, with the grotesque things which human beings do to one another, it seems strange to be recommending a book which shows just that. But “Harvesting” is so much more than an anxiety educing, outraging, account of the human trafficking and sex industries.

Lisa Harding is a former actor and her début novel evolved from a series of monologues she was asked to read that were written by women who had been trafficked into Ireland. as part of an awareness program. Thus began a journey for Harding as she sought to get to the depthsof these stories, and tell them.

“Harvesting” follows two girls as they make their drastically different journeys into the underground world of the Irish sex industry. Nico, (who is one of my new literary heroes) is from Moldova, in a world which bares a striking resemblance to Patrick Kavanagh's Tarry Flynn. Upon getting her first period and “reaching womanhood” she is set to marry, a dowry is received from a man 3 times her age. She is picked up, and taken away, never to see her family again. What her family don't know, or perhaps choose not to see, is that this is not an arranged marriage. This is a transaction, Nico has been sold, from one man (her father) to another. And this new one has plans for her. He is a human trafficker, and Nico is his newest acquisition.

Meanwhile, a thousand miles away in quiet South County Dublin, Sammy, a teenage tearaway is at her wits end with an abusive mother and an absentee father. Despite friends and people around her trying to steer her right, she resits at every turn, eventually deciding the only way to have power over her own life is to take that power to herself, and so she takes employment in a local brothel. But this does not give her the freedom she expects, as her choices are stripped from her and she is left trapped in a situation, which seems like there is no hope.

As we follow Nico across Europe and Sammy from bed to bed, we see the startling differences in their struggles, but the familiar sense that they are not in-charge of their own lives. They never were. Men have made their lives for them, and is in the hands of these men their future now rests. Unless they can claim back their lives for themselves.

Shocking, and poignant the book never lets up, and amazing prose carries you though, and will even have you laughing out loud as you, like for characters, laughter is the only desperate release from the horrors of the world around. A book which is full of the unexpected, Harding, keeps you on your toes while never keeping a tear fully from you eye. And important and engaging book. And part of a literary heritage of telling the stories of those who cannot tell it themselves.