This summer, I have pottered about Cavan, walked, swam, visited London, Borris, Dublin, Belfast, Galway. I have had a few poems and a couple of short stories published and have done a lot of editing of my first novel. I have also been at a few readings and festivals. I have sent material to an agent, and I am looking forward to a second mentoring session with my second novel. So, not a bad season. I have also travelled around the world, reading novels.
A Spring foray was to China, reading The Vagrants by Yi Yun Li. It was a grim depiction of Muddy River, a small town in China at the end of the Communist era under Mao. Poverty, violence, madness, despair, cruelty. Layer apon layer of human degradation with the occasional ray of love quickly snuffed out by the social system. It was an incredibly sad portrayal of the ruthlessness and utter devastation social oppression brings to bear on humanity. There was little of positive enlightenment except for the comment of one character that today, tomorrow, this month, year or season is not the whole of your life. It is only a part of your life. I guess, that is encouraging to remember: everything always changes.
The impact of society is a prevalent theme, at the moment. I guess, it is because people are feeling increasingly powerless. In My Name is Leon, Kit de Waal reflects on the battle the individual child faces in the development of modern society. She captures the innate love of a boy for his irresponsible and incapable mother well, and then his dawning realisation of difference. She tells a fascinating story of the journey of a black nine year old boy struggling with separation, a white social order, its collapse, and the slow growing awareness of his own presence, coloured by his skin and the violence thrust upon him.
I did not feel the same engagement about Colm Tóibín’s Testament of Mary. He describes Mary’s worry, anxiety, love, and fear for her son, and while, as a reader, I believed in her tangle of confusion, disbelief, longing, but, for me, Tóibín was unable to capture the tension I felt there should have been. To be honest, I felt conned and found it superficial. He has written it all before both in Brooklyn and Nora Webster.
Colm Tóibín shared (dominated) a platform with Richard Ford at Borris back in June. I would like to have heard a lot more from Ford, having just finished Let Me Be Frank With You. The book reflects the random haphazardness that exists today. ‘I am here’ is the theme of the first section, constantly undermined by characters needing to be ‘there’. There are parallel conflicts throughout the book: democrats/ republicans, the past/ the future; youth/ age, the wealth of Carnage Hill (the home of the wealthy sick) and the poverty of the dying, man/woman, black and white experiences. I really enjoyed the subtle tension of the book and the questions Ford raises about the nature of individual existence within a runaway, chaotic society.
The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak was one of my favourite books this summer. It looks how history plays its role in the present. It is set in Istanbul and Arizona. The story focuses on the impact of the Armenian experience at the hands of the Turks and shows how the experience reverberates through the generations – each individual gathering the bitterness and bequeathing the hurt and resentment forwards. The main protagonists are a family of women (the men die early) of different shapes, sizes and temperament. They display a series of reactions – to their history, to each other. It reflects human chemistry in motion. The women are bold, startling and revolve around dishes of food and emotion, one feeding off the other. The males in the book are lost in an ocean of feminine determinism.
Using the ‘Café Kundera’ as a sardonic philosophical tool, Shafak spots a light on the how conversation influences, misdirects, inspires and is ultimately meaningless other than as a tool of self regard. I love her titles of the conversationalists: the Dipsomaniac Cartoonist, the Non-Nationalist Scenarist of Ultranationalist Movies, the Closet Gay Columnist and the Exceptionally Untalented Poet, to name a few. Her key protagonists are the teenage daughters who are whirl wind twisters in a storm of chaotic history that dissolves into magical allegorical ribboned with human cruelty and power. The book pulsates. A bubbling minestrone soups with cherries on top. It was a completely different experience to Graham Green’s memoir along whose dusty corridors of power I am currently creeping.