Tag Archives: Ireland

America on my mind

No, this is not a “dump Trump” polemic (for a change). I am concerned with two remarkable novels about America before and during and after the Civil War, that is between 1861 to 1870. These will be followed by another book about America which lies at the top of my TBR pile – Darktown by Thomas Mullen, set in Atlanta in 1948 – watch this space.

barryRead in order of chronology, Sebastian Barry‘s new novel – Days Without End follows the fortunes and misfortunes of one, Thomas McNulty. It is a given that SB mines his own family history, not always as popular with said family as with his readers, and this is another fictionalised account of a distant relative.

Thomas leaves Sligo for Canada after his mother and sister have died in the potato famine; he knows what hunger is and escapes. Canada spits him out and he signs up with a friend, John Cole for the US military.

If you know your history, this will remind you that it is at the time of the “Indian Wars”. Thomas and John are both drafted into battalions hiking out towards California on the Oregon trail. This is not a book for the faint-hearted, there are graphic descriptions of killing, brutality and inter-race misunderstandings. Thomas and John do what they are told, without liking it one bit.

But the tale has a twist in it, and they end up with responsibility for a young Indian girl from the Oglala Sioux tribe.

So this is also a book about love, between two men and between these two men and the young girl, aged about ten. They leave the army and head off towards a peaceful future, but then the Civil War starts and they need to sign up again…

The second book has many attributes that echo Days Without End. News of the World follows the fortunes of one Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd who after the Civil War, but while the country is still unstable not to say frankly lawless, goes around the States giving public readings from newspapers.jiles

Bearing in mind that many people were illiterate, these were popular events and Captain Kidd made himself a living from it. But in Wichita Falls, he is called upon to take a young German-born child, also about ten, back to her relatives in Castroville. A tremendous distance, pretty much the length of Texas.

Paulette Jiles has presented us with a densely packed novel of exceptional interest, daring and emotion. Beautifully crafted and written, Captain Kidd and the young girl whom he calls Johanna, travel in a second hand buggy through plains and mountains, along and across flooded rivers braving Indians, cowboys, and plain evil-minded pimps.

This too, is by way of a love story. Johanna is an Indian-captive child, she has witnessed appalling horrors.  The Captain is old enough to be her grandfather but he grows to respect and admire her, and she grows to love him. Their adventures bring them even closer together, but he knows, even if he cannot get her to understand, that his mission accomplished will sever their connection.

The inevitable tension in this arrangement, and the growing bond between the two is exquisitely written.

If you read this and enjoyed them, you might also like The Son by Phillip Meyer [Not the Booker – a motley collection posted 4th September 2013]scan0003



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Tales of the City

New York – first a new novel ( his first) by Francis Spufford. Set in New York, a toe hold on the American continent in 1746. Golden Hill is a picaresque, rollicking pastiche of other eighteenth century novels, The Adventures of Roderick Random and Fanny Hill (both 1748), for example.

SpuffordMr Smith, Richard of that ilk, arrives from England with a bearer note for one thousand pounds – confirmation of the bond arriving by a later ship. This was presented at the House of Lovell, a counting house of some repute, which at the time simply did not have the requisite cash.  An advance in notes (not bank notes exactly but bonds of a sort in various currencies) were issued and Richard Smith was launched on the town.

As one might expect, adventures begin almost as soon as he walks into the accounting house and continue unabated until the thrilling twist towards the end of the novel.

New York is still a town, mostly of Dutch burghers and built accordingly of gable houses, squeezed in every now and then by a house with a distinctly London air. Golden Hill itself it the location of the Lovell house, Mr Richard Smith takes up lodgings with Mrs Lee in The Broadway, a cobbled street with trees along one side.

Having established himself there, he goes in search of sustenance in a local coffee house…

This is a truly delightful and insightful novel.

The second book ricochets from New York, London and Donegal backwards and forwards over a number of years and through its various protagonists – the principal two being Daniel Sullivan and Claudette Wells. Previous marriages have produced offspring who figure in the narrative. A typical chapter sub-heading might be Lenny, Los Angeles, 1994 or Lucas, London, 2014.

O'FarrellThis is a highly entertaining, poignant and satisfying novel. This Must Be the Place is the seventh novel by Maggie O’Farrell, she is a masterly story teller and there is much to amuse, astonish and intrigue the reader.

The very title begs the question ‘where’? This novel is about both place and situation. It is very much about points of connection – where they met, where he/she went and such like, so that revisiting those places can be both calming and sad; it is also about situations where he/she might have done/said something more or less, in a beautifully atonal set of circumstances. Like a symphony we keep revisiting painful and less painful parts of the story, the leitmotiv generally being about character defects or strengths which have rubbed awry against circumstance, or more happily made a good contact.

There is a particularly beautiful passage involving a very elderly woman who is reaching the end of life, remembering a significant meeting – one which could not be capitalised upon but which stayed precious nevertheless. This is perfection in writing:

She doesn’t know it at the time but she will think about this moment again and again, the two of them standing on the steps of the subway station…When she lies in the bedroom of her apartment with only hours to live, her daughters bickering in the kitchen, her husband in the front room, weeping or raging, her son asleep in the chair next to her, she will think of it again and will know it is perhaps for the last time. After this, she thinks, it will live only in the head of one person, and when he dies, it will be gone.

This is imagination at its very best, we are fully in the picture and can fill in all the minute and telling details for ourselves, and at the same time it also paints in another facet of the story that we have been following, another layer of meaning and perspective.



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Blogging the Booker 2015 – 3 Celtic beauty

IlluminationsQuite by chance I picked up two novels at random from the Booker Longlist pile only to find that they had a lot in common. Andrew O’Hagan writes about Scotland and Anne Enright about Ireland, both these books are about mothers and their children, about old age and about place and memory. the illuminations, the novel by Andrew O’Hagan starts with Maureen, an active member of a sheltered community home and her neighbour Anne Quirk. Maureen both resents the fact that her children apparently forget her, don’t telephone or send cards and resents the disruption when they are all there. This is not dissimilar to Rosaleen, the matriarch in Anne Enright‘s novel The Green Road. Maureen and Anne live at Saltcoat, a coastal town in Scotland which looks over the water towards the Isle of Arran, Rosaleen lives in an unnamed place, but the view from the Green Road looks out towards the Isle of Aran, such an odd synchronicity that I had to look it up to check that there were really two Ar(r)ans, there really are.

Anne Enright, already a winner of the Man Booker in 2007 for The Gathering, is the Laureate of Irish Writing, the first of the kind and reading her books one can absolutely see why. She writes in a Yeatsian prose, if there is such a thing. With a tremendous feeling for landscape, texture, sky and antiquity. As you read, you can feel the turf squeaking slightly beneath your boots, the cold air and the damp, the slightly salty smell of the seaweed, the dank, human body smell indoors; the sounds of wind, voices, traffic and the silence. In all Anne Enright’s writing the place, the sense and feel and scent of it is present in the narrative, and all changes when the scene moves to America.

Rosaleen has four children, two boys and two girls, Dan the older boy announces near the beginning of the novel that he intends to become a priest, but far from the expected reaction of a good Catholic mother, this sends Rosaleen into a paroxysm of grief;

This was not the first time their mother took the horizontal solution, as Dan liked to call it, but it was the longest that Hanna could remember. The bed creaked from time to time. The toilet flushed and the door of her room closed again. They got off to school early on Spy Wednesday and she was still ensconced. Hanna and Emmet lurked about the house, that was so large and silent without her. It all looked strange and unconnected: the turn of the bannisters at the top of the stairs, the small study with its light bulb gone, the line of damp on the dining room wallpaper inching up through a grove of bamboo.

This is so gently humorous and yet starkly truthful. The reader has a powerful sense of the difficulties this presents for the younger children.Green Road But it is outdoors that this writing is its most beguiling and impressive. The description of the Green Road is lovely, more than that it evokes everything beautiful, mystical and ancient about Irish stories. The men and women in this book inhabit a real world, each section deals with the move away from Rosaleen, each separate young person moving off to make their own mistakes – sometimes we don’t know quite what they are but we recognise the consequences and then in the second section their return for one final Christmas before Rosaleen sells the house, the build up to the finale being both dramatic and poignant. Constance, the elder daughter seems to have made similar mistakes to those her mother made, and there is a tremendously telling section when she is in a hospital being checked for breast cancer. Here the writing becomes oblique, diminishing each woman to a figure in a baggy gown, with fear and grief, misunderstanding and panic, probably exactly how it is in real life.

the illuminations is also divided into sections, some dealing with Anne’s growing dementia, her muddled story telling, her photography, her strangely mixed up life partly in Canada, then in New York and then Glasgow and Blackpool. Every now and then we switch heart-stoppingly to Luke, her grandson, serving in Helmand province. The description of the fire-fight in the dark, the endless convoys waiting for the road to have been cleared of IEDs, the heat and the soldiers joshing each other, especially as this is frequently news in the UK, so you get the women’s reaction and the letters from Camp Bastion, these add tension to an otherwise quite calming scene of an old lady whose memory is slowly unravelling. It is only towards the very end when she goes with her grandson to Blackpool to see the illuminations turned on, that the threads begin to tie up together and some sense of her reality breaks through.

In both these books the relationship between parent and offspring is perceptively and delicately drawn. The perspective that children have of their parent, whether right or wrong or the parent of her offspring for better or worse, these are the dilemmas that strike us all at one time or another for we are all children and then some of us are parents, we all make mistakes and we could all be kinder to ourselves and to our families. These families are unhappy is ways totally different from the family in Anne Tyler’s novels, but just as believable and it has to be admitted that it is rather a relief to have read these two books as an antidote to the harrowing experience of the previous one.

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Blogging The Booker 2014/1

Randomly picking up the book at the top of the pile I started this year’s marathon with Siri Hustvedt The Blazing World. I wish I could say that I enjoyed this book but I found it a bit like swimming through treacle.scan0002

Mea culpa, mea culpa: I found that the text was too loaded with references. So to roll back a bit…the novel is “compiled” by I.V.Hess and purports to be a study of the works and life of an artist, the late Harriet Burden, widow of the famous film director Felix Lord, also deceased. The novel is a collection of transcripts of interviews with friends and family, extracts from professional journals and extracts from a voluminous collection of Harriet Burden’s own notebooks, which themselves are a collection of thoughts, things she has read, ideas for her art works which we would now call installations.

The whole book is a meditation on perception, exemplified through art. What are we “seeing” when we look at a piece of art? How much are we influenced by the name/sex of the artist, and what has been written about the piece before we go to the exhibition? I will not deny that it is a brilliant book, Siri Hustvedt certainly deserves her place on this list.

But if you are new to her work, please start with another book, The Sorrows of an American. Both these titles are heavily influenced by the works of Søren Kierkegaard.scan0001 Both share an interest in the life and experience of the outsider, someone who is neither at ease in society nor his/her own skin. A study of dislocation, abiding sadness and loneliness. These books are not page turners, they are so dense with philosophy, psychiatry and deep thinking. But I have come away fuller even though I found The Blazing World more indigestible. Here is a page from this book which gives you an idea of why!scan0001[clicking on this link will open the document]

scan0003Reading these two books reminded me of a book I read in the sixties. The must read at the time, a study by Colin Wilson called The Outsider. Written in 1956 it is a study of existentialism, more Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, William Faulkner and many others whom you will also meet in The Blazing World. The book examines the lives, both non-fictional and fictional, of famous outsiders: Hemingway’s fictional heroes and Hemingway himself, Van Gogh, Kafka, Camus and many others.

Another randomly selected book on the Man Booker list is also, as it happens, about an outsider. Ruth Swain is a twin, she is ill from an obscure blood disorder, she is Irish and the book is set in the wettest year on record, just as the Tiger economy has bust.

If this sounds like a bit of a turn off, it is not. The novel is poetic, lyrical and an astonishing accomplishment. scan0004

It is History of the Rain by Niall Williams. Ruth’s father is a poet and much of the book is a background of his family, back to her great, great grandfather, The Reverend Absalom Swain of Salisbury, Wiltshire, his son Abraham who arrives in Ireland and her father Virgil and brings us right up to the moment Ruth herself goes into hospital for a last resort treatment. How can you not be enchanted by these men? It also covers the history or mythology of her MacCarroll grandmother’s family, whose roots lay way back in the Irish mists, and apparently rose from the sea as seaweed…mmm only in Ireland? Salmon fishing features and the Shannon River flows past the house. I told you it was romantic.

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Thomas Keneally Week

I have to admit that I do sometimes go mad and suddenly devour all the books on my shelves written by the same author. This time I have been a little selective and settled on writing about only four of about sixteen, there will probably be more to come on this same author since he is one of my favourites.

Thomas Keneally published his first book in 1964. Since then there have been a further twenty-five novels, several non fiction and at least two books for young children. I think I first caught up when The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, all those years ago they didn’t even publish the longlist. Keneally has been on the shortlist often enough since, with Confederates, Gossip from the Forest and Schindler’s Ark, for which book he finally won the prize – not without controversy since many people said that it was not in the strictest sense of the word, a novel. Of course it was a novel, and is now a film – Schindler’s List. Since then Keneally has written another book on that subject, quite definitely non-fiction, called Searching for Schindler.

I am saving Gossip from the Forest and Daughters of Mars for a future First World War blog, expect several more in the next few years.

What Thomas Keneally does in fiction is to take a true story, disintegrate it and reconstruct it so that we can understand the historical basis from an intimate, unusual perspective. Sometimes, using an historical background like The American Civil War (Confederates), sometimes using immigration/deportation into Australia as the background, (The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, The Playmaker and others) and sometimes using a true story and completely fictionalising it (Australian Japanese POW camps and Shame and the Captives).

Whatever he does, we come away enlightened, informed and better equipped for the next book we might read on the same subject. scan0002Confederates, for example, led me back to The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane and forward to Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier, not to mention Margaret Mitchell, Louisa M Alcott and several others. Keneally wrote Confederates because while staying and travelling around America he kept coming on to plaques commemorating sites of great battles and this intrigued him enough to research some of these places and the blood spilled there. He finally lights upon Antietam (Sharpsburg) and we follow the Shenandoah Volunteers and Tom Stonewall Jackson up to this cataclysm. Usaph Bumpass, Decatur Cate, little Joe Nunnally and all the rest: we march, sleep, eat, fight with them all right to the moment of their dying; truly a remarkable and defining experience.

The same sort of structure occurs in The People’s Trainscan0003, we follow in the footsteps of Artem Samsurov (based on an escaped Russian prisoner, Artem Sergeiv) who arrives in Brisbane in 1911, but does not find the Socialist paradise he is hoping for; a paradise of another kind awaits him. But he never loses his belief that one day the people will rise up and the revolution will come. When in 1917 it does, with two friends. Paddy Dykes, a journalist and an Australian miner, he sets off again for Russia to join in the fray. Thomas Keneally often has a journalist along with the hero, in Confederates it was The Honourable Horace Searcy a writer for The Times newspaper in London, who doubles as a spy but saved his neck by being British.

scan0001Shame and the Captives leaps forward to the Second World War. After the attack on Darwin, a large prisoner of war camp was set up in Cowra, in this novel the site is called Gawell and the inmates are a mixture of Italians, Koreans and the Japanese. The people and events this book describes are fiction but Thomas Keneally says this about his decision:

The truth is, though, that I have not created exactly the set of events that occurred in Cowra during the outbreak of 4-5 August 1944. I did not want to offend those who lived through that night, and the days before and after, and though – above all – I have tried to read as exactly as I can the cultures of both sides to the calamity, this is not what is called a roman a clef, a novel in which every character is meant to stand for and reflect on a real human, living or dead. My characters are not designed to reflect any virtues, sins, follies, fevers and acts of courage evident in any of the real actors in the Cowra outbreak. The details we have are not sufficient to fill out all the characters, in any case. And combining and enlarging details is something a novelist has to do – it’s part of the job. It can be apologies for, but not avoided.

This it has to be said, may have been written specifically about Shame and the Captives, but it pretty much applies to every historical novel written by Thomas Keneally – combination and enlargement. Brilliant.

scan0004As to his non-fiction – The Great Shame is a very long book about the Irish! Keneallys, one and all, must have sprung from an Irish landscape, I think. This masterly book, the forensic research sits lightly on the text, covers around eighty years of Irish history principally in the nineteenth century, including the infamous potato famine; the emigrations and the political deportations which drove or dragged people from the land of their forebears across the world to Australia. One of the characters in this book appears again in another: Thomas Francis Meagher made a spectacular escape from the penal colony which led to a glittering career as an orator and eventually a Union General in the American Civil War fighting against our Shenandoah Volunteers in the novel Confederates. In The Great Shame we meet all sorts of people, men and women, most especially the transportation-widowed and through them we meet the future Lady Wilde, mother of the more famous, Oscar who worked for and with Irish political prisoners. We are brought into an intimate understanding of the conflicting emotions: the desperation and also the sense of adventure – however inflicted and frightening.

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Man Booker 2013 – rural mayhem

There is no simple reason why I am writing about these two books, The Spinning Heart and Harvest, together other than that I read them one after the other. They neatly bookend a career, if what one reads in the Press is anything to go by, and they are both rural tales. Therein any other similarity vanishes.

The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan is a first novel, a second is already near completion it seems. Set in Ireland after the Tiger economy has crashed and burned, we meet in each chapter another person affected, wounded or imperilled by the sudden change in their circumstances. Women who have been taken up and dumped or abused by their menfolk; employees who have been tricked by their employer, the aptly named Pokey Burke and men damaged by abusive parenting. It is all here in its appalling brutality, but nevertheless some of them have risen above it all and become sons and daughters to be proud of. Bobby Mahon is one of these: an abusive father whom he hates lives in a cottage which has the spinning heart of the title on its gate, a wrought iron heart. The father verbally abused the mother to her grave, forcing his son to distance himself from his mother to his great regret, so that the rift never healed; the father then drunk away the family fortune to spite his own (already deceased) father and lives on and on, seemingly to spite his own son who badly needs the cottage and its remaining land to capitalise on to get back on his feet after having been shafted by his employer…you get the drift.

Sparely written, each new chapter adds another dimension to the previous one until the reader is left with a deepening sense of the pain and anguish, the spitefulness and small-mindedness of a rural community in crisis. The disappointments are riven though, from time to time, with a sense of the goodness of the few who have risen above it all and become decent people, and so the ending, which is not an ending is all the more powerful.

On the other hand, Harvest by Jim Crace is not so much about the spitefulness of people so much as the relentless demands of the land. This is rural England at around the turn of the 17th and 18th century, before enclosures. The villagers are still beholden to the manor, they till the fields, they sow the seed, they harvest the grain for the benefit of the lord of the manor, in return the lord of the manor dispenses justice, fairness and allows for the gleaning of the harvest for the people of the village to brew small ale and make porridge etc. Essentially a symbiotic relationship. But, possibly because village life is so enclosed, outsiders can pose a threat and are treated with suspicion. In this unfortunate circumstance, the novel opens with a scene of mischief that goes horribly wrong coinciding with the arrival of three newcomers. The mischief is suspected by at least one person in the village, Walter Thirsk, himself an in-comer but because of his silence a miscarriage of justice occurs and from this and other events, more disaster follows. Furthermore, there are changes afoot which will affect the whole village for better or worse, the title to the manor passes from one cousin to another, another with very different views as to the future…

According to the Press, Jim Crace has said this is his last novel. If this is so, he has not gone out with a whimper! Harvest stands up with the very best of his writing, and it breaks my heart to think that there will not be any more. This, like Quarantine, is not quite a reality tale but more of a allegory. The ur-village in this book and its inhabitants represent an age in Britain that has been lost forever and their losses stand for a much greater loss which we all have had to deal with one way or another. But the power of the writing lies in the lucidity of the prose, the deftness of touch that makes Jim Crace’s book so memorable, and so re-readable. Just as village life changed irrecoverably once the fields were enclosed and the practice of arable agriculture turned to pasture, the sense of a shared community was also lost; where joint effort is replaced by singularity of purpose then what follows is the rise and rise of a ‘me,my,mine’ mentality and this in its turn led to capitalism and so on. Life dependent on the lord of the manor may not have been an idyll, but the shared sense of purpose both at good times and bad must have ameliorated the basics somewhat. Enclosure and what followed altered that, drove masses of people off the land and into the cities and the consequences for Britain remain visible and actual today.


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Man Booker 2013 – 2 down 11 to go

The Great Read has begun.

Quite by chance I fell upon two books that are linked, very tenuously, by oceans. TransAtlantic by Colum McCann speaks for itself, the other book A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, spans the Pacific Ocean.

Since I read the Ozeki first, I will start with that. In case you do not already know this, Ruth Ozeki is a Zen Buddhist priest and her new novel is full of Zen thought and indeed, practice.

A piece of flotsam from across the Pacific Ocean, arrives on a remote Canadian beach and is picked up by Ruth, a writer who lives on this island with her husband, Oliver who is an eco-botanist. I think he is something of a recluse with a touch of autism, though this is never fully spelt out. He is an autodidact and has an uncanny knack of being able to link very disparate elements into a coherence that an ordinary person might not understand, and indeed notices relevances that Ruth often misses.

The flotsam is an ice-cooler bag in which there is a red Hello Kitty lunchbox the contents of which Ruth is preparing to jettison, but Oliver opens it and finds a Seiko watch, a bundle of letters in Japanese wrapped in oilskin with a notebook written in French and, apparently, a copy of A la recherche de temps perdu. Neither of them have read this masterwork by Proust but they are not going to read it in French, but Ruth flicks it open anyway and discovers to her astonishment, that it is actually a diary of sorts written in gel pen by someone called Nao Yasutani.

Part of the mystery is how this piece of flotsam reached the Canadian shoreline. Muriel, a beachcomber thinks it is unlikely to be part of the stuff that was washed out to sea after the Japanese Earthquake in 2011, she thinks it is still too soon for it to be that. Ruth reads the diary and needs to know more…

The unfolding story which switches methodically between Ruth’s story and Naoko’s is a narrative that dwells on secret writings, time beings and time fluctuations, but it is so skilfully written that the reader is absolutely compelled to follow avidly to the end to find out what happens.

The double whammy is that Ruth is one reader and Nao, the writer; but Ruth Ozeki is also the writer and I am the reader, and it doesn’t take a student of Zen to know that all these layers of intention and meaning are part of the time continuum. We are all Time Beings, whirling through space and time and our connectedness to real time events and events in the past are a thread that binds and holds us, even as Now becomes Then.

At the beginning of Part II there is a quotation from Proust (from Le temps retrouvé)

In reality, every reader, while he is reading, is the reader of his own self. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument, which he offers to the reader to permit him to discern what, without the book, he would perhaps never have seen in himself. The reader’s recognition in his own self of what the book says is the proof of its truth.

How very true! Of A Tale for the Time Being especially.

Transatlantic is an historical novel, like the previous book though, it is multi-layered and the connections only begin to unfold as one reaches the towards the end.

We start the book with a flight across the Atlantic Ocean from Newfoundland to Ireland by Alcock and Brown in 1919, witnessed by Emily Erlich and her daughter Lottie, Emily is a journalist and Lottie a photographer. In Brown’s pocket is a letter from Emily to a family called Jennings at an address in Cork. Then we are already in Ireland, but it is 1845 and a black abolitionist called Frederick Douglass is campaigning throughout Ireland, which already had a strong identification with the Anti-Slave movement, with all its connotations of anti-British feeling and at the same time there is the very beginning of the potato famine, which, when revealed accidentally to Frederick Douglass shocks him to the core since his own experience has never exposed him to such unmitigated want and malnutrition. At the house of Richard Webb, he sees a maid called Lily, he meets her later on at another house, the house of Isabel Jennings, she has run away and is going to America. We are then projected forward to 1998 and the Good Friday Accord in Ireland. Senator George Mitchell is busy shuttling across the Atlantic and this is hopefully his final visit, while he is there he happens to meet Lottie Erlich, now a very old woman in a wheelchair.

By the time you start Book II, you might be wondering whether this is in a true sense a novel, or merely a collection of long stories. But slowly and with wonderful mastery, Colum McCann unpacks the portmanteau, piece by piece the links are revealed and all the different threads are drawn together in a wonderful synchronicity.

Everything about these books urges the reader on, the extraordinary skill of both writers in the slow build up and the gradual revelation, but like life itself there are still mysteries, things that remain unexplained and yet are very revealing. Satisfyingly brilliant – I hope the remaining eleven books continue in this vein.

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