CITIZENS BY KEVIN CURRAN

CitizensAs Ireland commemorates the events surrounding the 1916 Easter Rising this timely novel teases out what this event means to the youth of today.

Citizens is set in Dublin 2011. In the aftermath of the collapse of the Celtic Tiger, Ireland is held in the grip of recession and austerity, and for apathetic 26 year old Neil it often feels as though his country has failed and the time is coming to leave. On the cusp of emigrating to Canada with his ambitious girlfriend Kathy, Neil finds his plans are put on hold when his grandfather dies. Neil delays his flight to Canada in order to receive his grandfather’s legacy. He is now stuck behind in Dublin, aiding his grieving grandmother, in the dole queue, and spending most of his free time at the gym or partying.

The legacy is a surprise to Neil. His great grandfather left behind written memories of the Rising. During the Easter Rising of 1916 Irish volunteers took over government buildings in Dublin, in the hope that it would trigger a national uprising against the British colonialists. In this sense the rising was a military failure. However the strong reaction of the British administration – holding trials for the leaders in secret before executing them – led to mass outrage, setting the desire for and path to independence alight.

In the midst of this Neil’s great grandfather Harry is to be found. A Pathe newsreel cameraman armed with a cinemachine to capture the birth of the new republic for posterity. Harry fully understands the importance of recording the events, people, successes and disasters he often comes across. This is an inventive and brilliant way of drawing the reader into the events of 1916 and is particularly relatable due to the current obsession with photographing and recording everything around us. Neil’s story is intercut with sections of Harry’s memoirs, but will Neil realise the value of the legacy?

Neil and Kathy are not often the most likeable of characters; shallow and selfish, they care only about themselves. Kathy, who has gone ahead to Canada and is waiting for Neil to catch up, helps to propel the narrative forward, but she is often a greedy, manipulative character who is difficult to like. The main characters are all fully rounded and recognisable, but there has to be something else for the reader to hold on to, to care about. Curran provides this in Neil’s growing relationship with his great grandfather’s diaries. Partially based on real letters and diaries they feel authentic and Curran skilfully avoids the trap of idealising or mythologising the past.

Neil’s relationship with his grandmother is particularly well drawn and many a reader will be able to relate to the love and frustration that the two feel for each other. The two characters also represent the different value systems they were born into and the movement that has taken place over the decades from idealism and nationhood to monetary value. As Neil says to his Gran: ‘wealth is what defines you, not your passport of where you are from.’ However his Gran does not agree with this: ‘Not everything of value has monetary worth, dear.’

Neil embodies the disappointment and weariness that seems to typify Ireland’s youth. As Neil explains: ‘he doesn’t belong. There is an accent in Irish television he never hears: his. Or ones like it. There is a type of person he never sees on Irish television: him, or people like him. Desperate, disillusioned, angry, annoyed’. The cynicism and theme of emigration also touch a nerve in a country where thousands of young people are leaving every year.

The title Citizens chimes in with the general theme of the commemorations which have been emphasising that it was the individuals, ordinary people, who did extraordinary things. Further, Curran explores what it means to be a citizen, good or bad, in both 1916 and modern Ireland. He explores the frustration many millennials feel when the traditional routes of education and hard work ultimately lead nowhere, well, except back to the dole queue. Neil seems more able to deal with this shifting economic climate, whereas Kathy does not.

As Neil works his way through his great-grandfathers legacy he gains a deeper understanding of the rebellion and the ideals that led individuals to take the action that they did. This is a journey the reader goes on with Neil. Citizens brings to life this extraordinary time in history in a vivid and personal manner. Curran frames the Easter Rising in a modern narrative which is a fresh way of delving into the events that shaped modern Ireland. By using two relatable, ordinary characters Curran draws the reader in until they feel closer to the events as they were, and as they are remembered. The book’s cover reflects this. Its dark shades of black and blue, images of contemporary and twentieth century O’Connell Street at night with the GPO (General post Office) building standing tall. Still riddled with bullet holes from 1916 it is a symbol of Ireland that reaches through the decades.

This is the second novel from Curran and has been listed as one of theIndependent’s top 10 novels that reflect the spirit and legacy of the rebellion. Citizens has quickly become a top seller in Ireland and as the centenary progresses this success is likely to continue. Curran is a confidant writer, in tune with his city and the characters he has created. This is an enjoyable and important read.

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Kevin Curran, Citizens (Liberties Press, 2016).  978-1910742259. 314pp., paperback.

With thanks to Liberties Press for a copy of this novel.

DUBLIN SEVEN BY FRANKIE GAFFNEY

dublin 7On a small crossroads near the bottom of Manor Street, one of the main through ways in Dublin 7, there is a rundown, abandoned pub called The Belfry. It was once painted blue with red hoarding, black lettering. It is now peeling and faded. In the two years that I have lived near here not once has this scene changed. Until just before Christmas a mural appeared. An almost ghoulish figure, a white face shrouded in a black hoodie with the following inscription: ‘Dublin Seven in bookshops now. “… twenty six years old the newsreader said the fella was shot dead. Then that vile euphemism ‘known to Gardai’. Deserved it in other words”.’

This is Dublin’s first introduction to Frankie Gaffney’s debut novel, a coming of age tale that focuses on the life and exploits of inner city teenager Shane. Directionless, he spends the summer after sitting his Leaving Cert partying with friends, drinking and taking ecstasy. Soon he meets a local gangland figure who introduces him to the world of drug dealing. The movement from enjoying weekend drink and drug sessions to selling is surprisingly easy for Shane.

—C’mere. D’ye know where I’d get a bit of tha stuff? Shane asked Griffo. —It’s deadly so it is.
—Yeah no bother kid, it’s always there if ye want it, anytime.

It was that easy. It is the tail end of the Celtic Tiger boom years and Dublin is awash with cocaine and eager and ambitious individuals willing to capitalise on this. Armed with the money from his college grant Shane joins the ranks of Dublin’s underworld. From this point on his life becomes increasingly complicated. He leaves home when he starts to make enough money and sets up shop until he is making thousands each month. At the same time he enters into a relationship with the beautiful but mystifying Elizabeth and his family still continue to impose on his life.

At first Shane is youthful and still a little naïve, but it doesn’t take long before he succumbs to paranoia and suspicion. Danger is inherent in his line of business. From his clients, others in the drug trade who may not appreciate this new up and comer, to the Guards. They figure quite heavily on the periphery of the novel, always on the edges, always in the back of Shane’s mind. This brings us back to the phrase on the mural, ‘that vile euphemism, known to Gardai’. This simple phrase is loaded with negative connotations. When you hear it on news reports and in the papers it is a way of avoiding stating that the person in question was a criminal. If they were known to the Gardai does this make them less important?

With this novel Gaffney aims to present a fresh perspective on the idea that all police are good and all gangsters are bad; dehumanised by the press who give them nicknames and sell papers in the back of their exploits. Dublin Seven offers a rare glimpse into the life of inner city youth, so often played out in black and white in newspapers and news reports. The setting is gritty and frequently violent. The novel is peppered with swear words, threats, and the violence that becomes a part of Shanes daily life until the novel reaches its thrilling climax.

The novel is informed by Gaffney’s personal experiences of growing up in the area and the criminal underworld that touched upon much of his early life. This first-hand experience comes in useful. The novel’s description and understanding of the drug trade; how one gets involved, measures out quantities and so on is clear and precise, having a simplicity and truth based rarely found in popular culture. He also shows how it can be remarkably easy for the situation to escalate. The setting, the background and the uncompromising image presented of inner city Dublin is perhaps the novel’s highlight. It’s divided into seven chapters which chart the seven main stages of Shane’s evolution —  his coming of age from a failing college student to an increasingly successful and paranoid drug dealer — which roughly parallel Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man. Gaffney has gone into detail about this idea in an article for the Irish Times.

The plot is well constructed and the central characters recognisable. The novel is told entirely from Shane’s perspective and he is the most rounded, full fleshed out character. Others, such as his sister and parents are less developed. In the end he seems to become estranged from his parents who live a life too different to his. His girlfriend Elizabeth, who seems almost excited by his underhand dealings, is in and out of his life. Although he professes to love her Shane doesn’t fully figure her out and in turn neither does the reader. Further the sex scenes are slightly uncomfortable to read and verge on gratuitous at times.

One of the stand out points of this strong and promising debut is the language. The characters speak in the distinct Dublin dialect, their accents shine through, broad, sharp and uncompromising. Here Gaffney follows in Roddy Doyle’s footsteps but takes it one step further. This is hopefully something Gaffney will continue in his future novels.

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Frankie Gaffney, Dublin Seven (Liberties Press,  2015). 9781910742112, 313pp., paperback.

With thanks to Liberties Press for a copy of this novel.

AFTER YOU BY JOJO MOYES

after you“Don’t think of me too often … Just live well. Just live. Love, Will”

After You is the sequel to the much loved international best seller Me Before You by prolific writer Jojo Moyes. Me Before You bought us the unlikely but beautifully portrayed romance between Will and Louisa. Will was a man who lived life to the full before becoming determined to die after a road traffic accident that left him quadriplegic but Louisa, his carer, set out to change this. She was the sparky, bright young woman who somehow found herself trapped by her life, her family and past. The two were bought together and Louisa learnt to live and enjoy life again before Will’s passing. How has Louisa fared since Me Before You’semotionally devastating ending?

This is Moyes first sequel. She has chosen to revisit the character of Louisa and as a reader one is slightly nervous at revisiting such a well-loved character. However, this is a fear that is not realised. We meet Louisa eighteen months later. She has relocated to London after having broken away from her family and the small town gossips of her home town. She works in an airport bar before going home to an east London flat that never feels like her own. Her family and her desire to live every moment of life to the full are conspicuously missing until one night that changes her life. A stranger turns up on her doorstep and she has a choice, close the door and live a safe, ordered but unfulfilling life, or open it and risk everything.

In the first few chapters we see Louisa struggling with the legacy Will left her, the burden of trying to live life to the full whilst still grieving. When she suffers a dramatic fall, her family, who have been estranged since Will’s death, come back into her life along with a new set of characters, Paramedic Sam and teenager Lily, who reinvigorate Louisa’s life and ambitions. One of the themes that ran through Me Before Youand continues in After You is that to live life is also to be vulnerable, to be open to pain and struggle but to embrace it any way to find happiness and love. Moyes digs into the messy reality of grieving and trying to establish a new life when your old one has been rocked from its foundations. It would perhaps have been easier to leave Louisa at the end of Me Before You with all of life’s opportunities in front of her rather than portraying grief  and the difficulty of living under the pressure of expectation: trying to make the deceased Will proud.

Moyes manages to tackle the big issues through character driven narrative, leading the reader through ideas and places they may never have thought of before. The strong characters, well defined and recognisable, lie at the heart of her success. It would have been easy to make Louisa into some sort of martyr or hero but instead she is deeply flawed and scared of getting hurt again. She does stupid things, misses opportunities and has an often fraught relationship with her family. Working in a dead end job in an Irish theme bar in an airport, where she watches planes take off and land, possibilities and opportunities that she is not a part of, the reader stays with Louisa as she experiences many of the trials and tribulations that they do. Her flaws and interesting choices can make her a frustrating character at times as she trips herself up and is her only road block to happiness. Moyes brilliantly captures the complexities of modern life and the difficulty in trying to live for oneself.

Louisa attends a ‘Moving On’ grief counselling group with others like her who are struggling to move on. This provides a surprising amount of humour given the dark subject matter. However the longer Louisa seems to be stuck the more those around her start to move, to develop their interests and take new paths in life, perhaps none more so than Louisa’s stay-at-home mother, who discovers a whole new side to herself when she starts reading feminist literature. The additional characters have their own personalities and story lines but are never quite as fully rounded as the protagonist. The repercussions of Will’s decision have rippled through both his and Louisa’s family, and the question of what happens when we live for our own fulfilment is explored. Further, the introduction of several new characters reenergise both Louisa and the plot line. Moyes does give in a little to sentiment, with a few very convenient and slightly unrealistic plot twists occurring towards the end of the novel, but the reader forgives this because of the excellent writing and shared desire to see our protagonist succeed.

With moments of humour, happiness and occasionally deep sadnessAfter You brings Louisa, and the novel, to a satisfying new position. However it will not touch the heart in quite the way Me Before You did and it is worth noting that to fully appreciate the complexities of After You it is ideal to have read Me Before You. The slightly open ending begs the question of whether there will be a third episode for Louisa, and having devoured the novel I can only hope that there is. Very few authors delve into what happened next and the messy aftermath of Will’s death must have left the author (and reader) a little apprehensive about picking up the story, but the doubts quickly fade away. This is a satisfying and enjoyable novel that will entertain Louisa fans everywhere.

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Jojo Moyes, After You (Michael Joseph,  2015). 978 0 – 718 179618, 407pp., hardback

MOVING BY JENNY ECLAIR

movingMoving is the latest literary offering from Jenny Eclair. It is the fourth novel from the comedian, who has published three other successful novels;Camberwell Beauty, Having a Lovely Timeand Life, Death and Vanilla Slices in her varied career. Eclair is perhaps best known as a comedian, being the first woman to win the prestigious Edinburgh Fringe Festival’s Perrier Comedy Award. She has also appeared on Loose Women, numerous reality TV shows and was one of the originators of the Grumpy Old Women series and tour. More recently she has turned her attention to writing and has found success as a novelist.

There can be some scepticism when a comedian or TV personality releases a novel. Publishers often expect that placing a famous name on a book cover will sell more copies with little focus on the often comical contents. However Eclair turns these expectations upside down with her absorbing, well-crafted fourth novel.

Moving is Eclair’s most accomplished novel to date and also her most complex, interweaving multiple perspectives and time frames in order to unravel the mystery that lies at the heart of one family. She has set herself, and achieved, the difficult challenge of making each voice as humourous and interesting as the last.

The novel opens with the voice of the elderly Edwina. She has lived in the house for over fifty years, watching as it has gone from a bustling family home to a dusty museum of memories. As she leads the estate agent through each room her story opens up, showing that the frail old woman that the reader first meets has lived a vibrant, complex life full of love and difficulty.

We are introduced to her family, her first love Ollie and their twin children Charlie and Rowena, before meeting her completely different second husband Dickey and her stepson, whose name she cannot even bring herself to say. Eclair manages to create a family that is both unique and very recognisable. The delicately observed family dynamics help to pull the reader in, spiking an interest in the tragedy that is at the centre of the story. This is developed upon by the excellent use of language.

When the twins go away to university, the differences between them and their step brother become even more apparent. As Charlie leads a life of hedonism and idleness in 1980s Manchester, his almost inevitable decline is captured by his on – off girlfriend Fern. From this point on the plot begins to tie together before finally coming full circle and ending once again with Edwina.

The characters are believable and fully fleshed out giving a seeringly honest portrait of the secrets and betrayals that can fester within a family. Her characters are told with compassion and humour as she gets into the nitty gritty of their often selfish and confused motivations and behaviours. This is particularly so with Edwina’s character. Edwina is such a well formed character, never described with clichés or stock ideas about old age but instead having a strong and distinct voice. The reader feels empathy for characters that are not instantly likeable, and is keen to race to the end to find out what happens. Further Éclair’s gift for humour is illustrated throughout the novel which is as funny as it is captivating.

The house plays its own role in the novel, rooting the reader and the characters around this one central point. It used to be a full family home, as if Edwina and her family expanded to fill the space, but as they left it became too big for her; leaving her and her memories behind. The gentle movement between past and present scratches away at the surface. Why is Edwina so alone in her old age? What happened in the house to cause such turmoil that she has no family and cannot bring herself to recollect certain events and people?

The title refers to both the physical act of moving home that Edwina is to undertake but also to emotional moving on of memories that each character goes through. As Edwina physically moves through the house and prepares to leave, it is as though she is also moving though her own past before being able to move on from the memories and mistakes that still live with her.

The novel is split into three sections, each with a different voice and time setting, spanning from the 1960s to the present day. This serves to move the plot forward, revealing the unknown tragedy that lies at the heart of the story which is slowly peeled away by the different characters. The change in voice that comes with each section feels a little abrupt at first. Once you have taken to a character you are reluctant to leave them behind. However this is short lived as it starts to become clear how the characters relate to each other.

The ending to the novel is unexpected and surprising. Just when the reader thinks that have finally gotten to the heart of this family another layer is pulled back, finally getting the truth, opening up the secrets that have so long haunted Edwina’s home. Moving is a compelling novel, full of humour and compassion with characters that will stay with the reader long after the end.

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Jenny Eclair, Moving (Little Brown Book Group: Great Britain, 2015). 978075155094 8, 387pp., paperback.

US BY DAVID NICHOLLS

usUs is David Nicholls’ fourth novel and the follow up to 2009’s surprise hit One Day. Nicholls is an award winning author and screenwriter whose earlier books have been turned into successful and much loved movies, bringing his characters and take on love to a new audience.

Us is a portrait of a couple who are in danger of falling apart. It is, as his other novels are, an investigation into love; into what happens to a couple when they marry, have children and spend twenty years investing in each other, and then find that perhaps it hasn’t been enough to keep them together. However it is also a father and son love story. Many of the most poignant sections of the book come from this tangled parent – child relationship.

The novel begins with middle-aged industrial biochemist Douglas Petersen being woken in the middle of the night, to be told by his artistic and popular wife Connie that she might be leaving him. This comes as more than a little shock to Douglas:

‘I was looking forward to us growing old together. Me and you, growing old and dying together.’

‘Douglas, who in their right mind would look forward to that?’.

Despite this, they carry on with their plans to go on one final family holiday before their only son Albie leaves for college. It will be a recreation of the nineteenth-century grand tour of the cultural hotspots in Europe, designed to introduce Albie to the finer things in life. It also becomes, in Douglas’s mind, his one last chance of saving his ailing marriage, as he hopes he and his wife will rediscover themselves together, not separately, on the trip of a lifetime.

With the fear that all he loves and knows will soon be leaving him, the scene is set for a tense, often humorous, tour through Europe on which the reader is given a front row seat.

Showing his feelings and communicating them to those he cares for is not an easy task for Douglas, who seems much more reserved and conservative than his spontaneous, easy going wife. From the beginning it is their differences that both attract and separate them from each other. Douglas is always slightly out of step, both on their holiday and in his own family, never quite understanding or reading from the same script as those around him. Intellectually superior and often dispassionate he is an odd fit for the emotional race against time that the grand tour presents him with.

This is a gentle study of the way a marriage copes and evolves with the stresses and strains of life placed on it. Although love can ambush you one night at a dinner party is it enough alone to sustain you? Whilst Connie (experimental, liberal) who works in an art gallery, is able to let go and immerse herself in their travels, reminiscing about her youth, Douglas finds himself preoccupied with finances and guidebooks, trying to encourage enjoyment so much that he cannot find any. He is as serious minded as she is free and easy.

Douglas is undoubtedly flawed, most specifically in his role as a father. He finds himself utterly baffled by his teenage son. Finding early on that he and his son were grossly different Douglas chose to stand back, eschewing the challenging task of bonding. Over the years there has been a developing sense of separation, anger almost, between the two. The grand tour begins with Douglas trying to rescue his marriage and ends with him also trying to salvage some form of relationship with seventeen year old Albie.

Douglas acts as the novel’s only narrator, putting him in a privileged position, allowing us to see the workings of his mind when he is unable to express his love and aspirations. He is a particularly stiff and repressed narrator. This also means that the reader only gets to see his frankly more interesting wife through his eyes. However this allows Douglas to grow in the reader’s sympathy and esteem, as by understanding the ambitions behind his actions one can better relate to, if not take to him. The narrative links the past and present excellently, bringing out the highs and the lows from the couple’s joint past, to illustrate how they have become, as individuals and as a couple, which they now are.

It is refreshing to find a novel that deals with characters entering early middle age rather than still in the first flush of youthful love. It would be a disservice to Nicholls to describe him as a rom–com writer; he has shown his versatility and willingness to touch on the darker side of things in previous works and there is never a guarantee of a traditional happy ending. With Nicholls you also get a touch of realism and satisfaction from the journey his characters take and their respective endings.

Whether it is a couple in crisis or a man in crisis is not quite clear from the beginning of this novel: Douglas is forced in many ways to question the role he has played in the family of three over the past twenty years or so. Missed connections and continued confusion on the journey parallel those in their strained family. It is a grand tour through central Europe that takes in the evolution of a marriage, of a family. Us is skilfully written, the characters drawn with sensitivity and a warm heart that make this an enjoyable read.

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David Nicholls, Us, (Hodder & Stoughton: London, 2014). 978-0340896990, 417pp., paperback.

MISS CARTER’S WAR BY SHEILA HANCOCK

miss carters warMiss Carter’s War opens in 1948, in smoky post war Britain, introducing us to the woman who is going to take on the world. Half French half English, Miss Marguerite Carter is as scarred by her war time experiences as the landscape in which she finds herself. However she becomes determined to save the world from falling back into its dark past, a desire that takes the reader into the heart of both the woman and the novel.

Author Sheila Hancock is well known as an accomplished and well-loved actress of the stage, screen and radio with a career spanning over sixty years including spells with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, for whom she directed as well as acted. She was awarded an OBE for services to drama in 1974 and a CBE in 2011. Hancock’s first outing as a writer was 1987’s Rambling’s of an Actress followed in 2004 by the number one bestseller The Two Of Us, a memoir of her marriage with husband John Thaw written after his death. The Two of Us won the British Book Award for Author of the Year and was followed in 2008 by her memoir of widowhood Just Me.

Miss Carter returns Britain after the Second World War after having spent much of the war conducting secret operations in France, becoming a heroine of the French Resistance. She becomes one of the first women to attain a degree from University of Cambridge. With it she decides the best way to change the world is to become a teacher, educating her girls and inspiring lives and hopes one at a time. Alongside this her social activism and empathy for others make her a truly remarkable individual.

Education becomes her life’s passion and as the years pass and the country changes so does he life as a teacher. From this position she sees the changes in each generation of the young and encounters both hope and despair. Through her students, often marked or neglected by the devastation that only war can bring Miss Carter is able to continue to dream of a better future, one in which the next generation will not suffer or see the darkness that she has seen.

Her war time experiences are told in short, sometimes brutally clear flashbacks but are not bought fully to life. Like many of that generation Miss Carter does not speak of the things that happened to her, but instead the human consequences of war ripple throughout her life and throughout the following generations. The novel brings the reader through the tumultuous twentieth century, through the depression and rationing that plagued much of the fifties, the fashion and optimism of the early sixties into the increasingly hostile seventies that sees a new generation emerge for whom the is just a lesson in a history text book, before winding through to the dawn of the twenty first century. Miss Carter’s War is a portrait of a woman that takes on a sweeping panoramic of twentieth century Britain.

Carter is a fully fleshed out character and her close, enduring friendship with fellow teacher Tony proves itself to be a fascinating and deeply touching relationship that leads the reader through the well-researched historical detail. The plot is believable and skilfully written in an easy style of writing full of empathy and understanding. The cast of supporting characters, their traits and behaviours are clearly bought out, making them recognisable, as they interweave in Miss Carter’s life. They also provide a link to the previous generation with, for example, the language and mind set of northern miners that are challenged, and perhaps even lost, by the rapid social and political changes. The novel paces on and when Hancock focuses more on the political and the grander scheme of things the plot can start to lose a little focus but it always returns to the personal, keeping the reader hooked.

The central relationship is both all-encompassing and at times heart wrenching. Hancock’s prose and understanding of her characters allows the reader to fully invest in them. In showing love for what it is and in all its guises the novel questions what relationships are and what they can mean, to both individuals and society as a whole, which is perhaps best encapsulated in the campaign for gay rights. The disappointments of life, of dealing with an uncompassionate system, and of love in particular, never quite manage to extinguish her idealism.

However as the novel ends shortly before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the reader, knowing what comes next, finds it a little harder than Miss Carter to maintain a sense of optimism and belief in the ideals that thread through the book in the hope of leading to a brighter future. Similarly, when historical characters rub shoulders with our fictional heroine the reader has a second opinion to that of Miss Carter. For example when a young Margaret Thatcher appears at a 1950’s political rally the reader already knows the path her political desires will take and how they contrast with the idealistic young Miss Carter and her partner in crime Tony.
The ending brings Miss Carter back to where she began as her character finally confronts her past, both of the war and of the lover she left behind. A lover who has haunted her through the years almost as much as the vivid horrors from her operations. Some of the later chapters that deal with hopelessness, despair and grief are perhaps the most touching and universal.

Miss Carter’s War is a slow burner that grows into an all – encompassing journey through post war Britain, from despair to hope and is an engrossing and enjoyable read. Shiny New Books will be hoping for future fiction from new novelist Sheila Hancock.

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Sheila Hancock, Miss Carter’s War, (Bloomsbury: London, 2014), 9781408829172, 422pp., paperback.

With thanks to Bloomsbury for a copy of this novel.

The Woman Who Stole My Life by Marian Keyes Review

First written for Shiny New Books

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Meet Stella Sweeney, a Dublin wife, mother and beautician in her early forties. Stella’s chaotic but seemingly content life is abruptly interrupted before spiralling in directions she could have never imagined, before landing Stella back where she started but as a very different person.

This is Marian Keyes 12th novel. For nearly twenty years she has been writing massively successful commercial fiction that instantly tops bestsellers list on their release. This has resulted in over 26 million book sales worldwide and a buzz of interest with each new novel. For Keyes’ most recent creation she has created Stella, an unashamed optimist without an ounce of self-pity, who when pushed by life comes out fighting. Stella’s narrative voice is clear, friendly and easy to relate to. As she navigates through this tumultuous period in her life she avoids getting lost in introspection or pity, but instead brings a positivism and relentless desire to keep going to the novel.

Despite this Stella’s life is increasingly disatisfactory. Her workaholic husband has less and less time for her or the family, leaving Stella to deal with two teenage children as they start to navigate the murky waters of relationships and sexuality. Although she enjoys her job and looks after her children Stella’s life is distinctly lacking in passion. This is something that she doesn’t find until she meets a charismatic, complex doctor when she is suddenly struck down with a rare paralysing illness. This new relationship will take Stella and her family on a journey they could never have imagined before landing them back in Dublin, somewhat bruised by life and unsure of the future.

Set in the fictional suburb of Ferrytown the novel is populated by Stella’s aspirational working class Irish family, her new middle class friends, New York literary socialites and hangers on, and Stella’s husband and love interest – not the same man.

A recurrent theme throughout the novel is karma. The Woman Who Stole My Life begins with Stella trying to do a good turn when she lets a car back out of a tight corner, only to inadvertently cause a three car accident leaving her car a write off and bitterly questioning the existence of karma. But karma keeps coming back. Keyes continually questions whether good things balance out the bad or whether the universe will provide, as in the end people get what they deserve.

The novel’s resolution is particularly realistic and may not sit well with fans of Keyes hoping for a simple replication of her earlier novels. One aspect for joy is the fact that as Ms Keyes ages so do her protagonists. For those tired of reading about University life and the fear of turning thirty this is the perfect antidote. In an interview with Independent.IE,  Keyes says

I think there is nothing that has given a voice to the vulnerability of women in their late 30s and their 40s. We’re more experienced and in many ways we’re wiser, but we’re still vulnerable to pain. In some ways, life gets easier, you’re better at saying no and you know your limitations, but you’ve feelings; you still love and you still lose.

The novels skips between the past and the present; where we see Stella back in Dublin, separated from her husband, single and close to penniless. Her daughter Betsy is living in New York and her unconventional teenage son is obsessed with yoga and meditation. Husband Ryan is a frustrated artist and his wife’s sudden creative ascent leaves him baffled and bewildered at the world around him. Old characters have to take a new look at themselves and find they do not entirely recognise themselves or their situations.

It takes time for the novel to catch up with Stella as the events of the past year unfold. How did this happen? What happened in New York that led to this point?

Its tongue in cheek look at the publishing industry humorously compares the treatment of writers in the US compared to Ireland. The struggle of a frustrated writer failing to write their next bestseller chimes with truth that could only have been written so clearly by one who has been through it.

Is it possible for everything to go back to how it used to be for Stella, or will her life change irrevocably?

One thing that the novel does exceptionally well, with a real truth and humanity, is its depiction and discussion of illness; what it feels like to be the one suffering and the reaction of loved ones. The writing remains balanced and touched with humour when tackling the darker side to life and illness. The complicated and dependent relationship between doctor and patient is shown and the frustration, pain, boredom and feelings of uselessness of those around is delicately done.

Stella’s rare illness, Guillain-Barré syndrome, leaves her completely paralysed except for the ability to blink. If her family were ill-equipped to deal with her hospitalisation, they were even more ill-equipped to deal with her recovery, with her son at one point stating what everyone else was feeling ‘This was your fault, you shouldn’t have gotten ill’. Further, her illness and chance meeting with a charismatic and interesting doctor sets in motion a chain of events that no one could have imagined.

The second half of the novel focuses in more on her adventures in New York and eventual downward return back to Dublin. The rest of the world starts to see Stella as a writer possessed with great wisdom, and sage after her miraculous recovery; however behind the image she is still the same woman and mother, more at home in a beauticians salon than the literary circuit.

The children’s characters could have done with more development and the husband could have done with more filling out; he was not the most likeable of characters. Stella’s family showed great comic potential and also the ability to tug at the heart strings. It would be nice to see more of these characters in future novels.

Although not quite as sharp as Keyes’s earlier literary offerings, The Woman Who Stole My Life remains charming, brimming with Irish with and humour. However darker undertones come closer to the surface and a slightly rushed ending prevent this from being one of her greatest. For a novel that will have you laughing from the beginning, this is the book to go for.

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