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.


 

LAST ONES LEFT ALIVE BY SARAH DAVIS-GOFF

 
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Last Ones Left Alive” takes us far away and brings us straight home in the same moment, asking the dreaded question: if it all ended in this moment what will be the legacy of the world we are creating right now?

Sarah Davis-Goff is co-founder of Ireland's Tramp Press, quickly becoming one of the most well respected independent publishing house on the island, the imprint has gone from strength to strength and has certainly made a fan of me as well as many others in the bookselling trade.

Last Ones Left Alive, is Davis-Goff's début novel. In it she tells the story Orpen, newly orphaned and nearly alone she is trekking across wastlandic Ireland, in an unspecified time in our future. A virus has stripped the world of most of humanity devolving us into beast like “Skrakes” in what is the first of a number of highly insightful and oddly nostalgic homages to Ireland’s mythology and current culture.

The book begins with mysteries abound, and a dual-narrative serves to fill in some of the blanks while we follow Orpen from Ireland's western coast towards the East and the sanctuary of Phoenix City. A name many readers will throw heavy assumptions into from its first mention. I would not hesitate to call it a literary, action-adventure, horror. Where Orpen's badass nature, complex and often stark prose, and (for all intensive purposes) zombies, meld brilliantly into a gripping narrative with enough pace and intrigue to keep you turning the page.

Orpen's journey takes us through locations that many of us know, and is abound with cultural references that will make you chuckle. Particularly it is telling how none of the characters can decipher the strange writing underneath the English words on road signs. But, Orpen rarely dwells on her landscape, bar her constant vigilance for attack, which leaves the readers at one with her own anxiety. Playing both with and against expectations, the feeling of impending doom is sown through masterfully to keep you hopeful and cynical from breath to breath.

But despite the horror of seeing the desolation of a land I actually call home—a sensation which the prevalently foreign location of previous ventures into this genre could not induce—the most disconcerting thought I had throughout the book was the mirror it held up to the present day. If the world ended tomorrow, and few humans survive, what pieces of our current culture and systems would be passed on to those left behind? What would a new society built from the mistakes of this one resemble? Davis-Goff takes some of the worst of us; and much can be gleaned from how her fictional society takes both the bodies and the rightful anger of its women, and uses them against them. And yet, all the people we encounter throughout the novel, bar one poignant exception, show us all the warmth and strength that is the best humans have in us.

Exciting and engaging, with a fully authentic world, Last Ones Left Alive rewards the reader and is exactly the début we looked forward to from the author.