Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

"Where have you been?" by Joseph O'Connor (Vintage, 2013)

In "Two Little Clouds" 2 schoolmates meet years later in a pub. The twist is unexpected and worthwhile - the main character's been told a fib. "Orchard Street, Dawn" is set in New York, 1869. An immigrant Irish family's baby dies. We see how the community provide support, learning about the parents' past and future. In "Boyhood's Fire" we're in London, 1988. It's the day of the England-Ireland football match, but the main character has to go to an Wedding reception (Irish wife and flown-in relatives; English husband). Old arguments return. The Ireland team's managed by Jack Charlton, an Englishman. Tempers fray - the main character's in a state because of something his sister told him, but a trick's been played on him. "Death of a civil servant" charts the fall of a now childless husband whose wife leaves him without warning and who's preparing his suicide. "October-Coloured Weather" features a married woman with maybe 10 months to live. Alone in Dublin she goes to a hotel room with a chatty widower she meets, spending a probably sexless night with him. He's kind, so is the waiter, and kindness matters now. "Figure in a Photograph" is the weakest of the stories so far - a husband who wanted children now has them. In "The Wexford Girl" a son recounts his friendship with his father, his mother's sudden departure and death, then his father's death. He died laughing, having joked himself out of awkward situations. It might be my favourite story in the book.

The concluding novella "Where have you been" shuffles some by now familiar ideas - the main character, Cian (Irish), had a breakdown after his divorce (he'd wanted children, but had none). He spends time with his ailing father. He meets an English women, Catherine, who often visits Eire for her work (it emerges that she was a self-harmer and still visits a therapist). There's long, drawn out dialogue. The whole thing saunters along. The final section jumps a few years. Cian delivers a requiem for his father. We get the inevitable history lesson and discover that through Catherine he met an Irish divorce with whom he has a family.

There are several fathers trying to have a closer relationship to a son, or v.v.. Dublin is booming, the Irish are returning. The dialogue's good (so Irish that it sounds stage-Irish at times - "I will not indeed. I've no voice on me these days. Don't be mocking the afflicted" p.71), with Irish history feeding the flames. There's humour, with passages like "His glasses are of a kind promoted by opticians as suitable for parents of toddlers. Designed by geniuses in a wind tunnel, advertised by astronauts, they are guaranteed unbendable. The Swiper in the Diaper whips them from Sean Hyland's face, does something fast and deft with her clever little hands and tosses them triumphantly on the footpath. They look like an ampersand. Sean Hyland's daughter has a future in origami. Or vandalising car aerials" (p.171). Overall I was underwhelmed.

There's a typo on p.91 - "people only it in for the buck".

Other reviews

  • Chris Power (Guardian) ("The Wexford Girl", the one really excellent story here)
  • Catherine Taylor (Telegraph) (Nostalgia is effective when not laced with sentimentality; “The Wexford Girl” is a fine, stripped-down example of loneliness. However the collection ends with an overblown “novella” deploying O’Connor’s familiar prototype of male depressive and failed affair, and a preaching, ponderous coda. It is this sonorous earnestness which dogs the writing. )
  • Lucy Scholes (Independent) (Individually these stories are quietly unassuming gems; together, a powerful ode to modern Ireland)
  • Brian Maye (Irish Times) (There are stories here about broken marriages and the tender love of sons for fathers (familiar themes in O’Connor’s writings). That love is most movingly and impressively expressed in The Wexford Girl (probably the finest story in the collection) but dissipated somewhat in the final, overlong part of the novella that gives the book its title. O’Connor has a wonderful ear for dialogue )
  • Philip Womack (New Humanist) (This collection is beautiful; full of pure, simple truths that linger long in the mind. All around O’Connor’s characters, things change – but humanity, in its loves and losses, stays the same)
  • Kim Evans (The story which most memorably stands out is Orchard Street, Dawn ... This is a perceptive and moving collection of stories, although most of them are better described as flashes of emotion and moments in time rather than a strong narrative, with the exception of the novella at the end.)

No comments:

Post a Comment