A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride

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I once read the claim – which is most probably impossible to back up with statistical data – that at least 99% of our thoughts isn’t suitable for public consumption – not necessarily because of their content (though I guess that can be a serious reason, too, for not publicizing them) but rather because of their form (or lack thereof).

Sure, stream of consciousness, we all know what that is – wandering among free associations, memories and random thoughts in no way related to anything else – but this novel takes this to the next level and illustrates that what goes on in our mind isn’t always expressible through language.

So how does it work as a novel (which, after all, usually consists of language)? McBride’s method of choice is that she expresses the narrator-protagonist’s thoughts using a language that ignores everything we know about typical word order, sentence structure and sentence boundaries. Here’s a sample:

For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll wear your say. Mammy me? Yes you. Bounce the bed, I’d say. I’d say that’s what you did. Then lay you down. They cut you round. Wait and hour and day.

Exhausting, right?

It most definitely is; in the last couple of years I picked up this book a couple of times but I always gave up reading after three lines or so.

But now the time has come to finally read it, and I found I could get used to this style – after about 30 pages it seems quite plausible that it’s possible to write like this and it’s also possible to understand the writing. What’s more: it’s possible to be immersed in this style and forget about everything else – the novel’s unsettled and unsettling, feverish and intimate style – which expresses the narrator’s most chaotic, most ambiguous, most tender and most cruel thoughts simultaneously – is often beautiful and possesses a musical, poetic rhythm which completely envelops me. And even though it’s a deeply unpleasant experience to be this close to someone’s mind, be this deep inside someone’s mind – I couldn’t stand it for long stretches and reading this slim novel took me 4 days – the writing is strong and powerful, no doubt.

So much for the style – but what is the novel about?

It is set somewhere in a corner of Ireland, and includes several themes often found in Irish literature: Catholicism and rebellion against it; desolation; neglect; violence, unhealthy family and sexual relationships; and so on.

The story is centered around the relationship between the narrator and her older brother. Due to a childhood brain tumor, the boy is slightly disabled, has poor eyesight and below-average mental abilities, and the girl spends her whole life in the shadow of her brother. As a child, she tries to shield her brother from the cruelties of the world, and when she grows up, she runs away from home and tries to build herself a personality that’s separate from her brother, using very drastic methods which only help for a while.

And even though the girl has excellent mental faculties, that doesn’t diminish the chaos in her mind and doesn’t allow her to cope with the difficulties of her life any better (and she has much to cope with). The story itself is brutal, and told in this style it’s even more so. Reading this novel is about as uncomfortable as reading Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy or Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School. (There are also thematic similarities between these works.)

Recommended for emotionally extremely well-balanced periods – otherwise it might just be too hard to bear.

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The Gates by Jennifer Johnston

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I’ve read Jennifer Johnston’s The Gingerbread Woman multiple times, and I was thinking if she can write such a masterpiece as that, then I want to seek out her other work, too. I was biased, a lot, but I had to admit to myself: this novel, for me, is nothing special. It’s like a novel young and talented authors write, authors who would later go on to write much better books (if we assume that this is a linear process, and things become better and talents get more talented in time).

The Gates is about a family who’s seen better days. The alcoholic uncle and the trusty old housekeeper, Ivy spend their days on the family farm, which has also seen better days, and things are slowly rotting away, until one day the niece, Minnie comes home from her London school, and starts to disrupt the old rules and habits with all the enthusiasm and insolence of a 16-year-old girl. Minnie, for instance, makes friends with the oldest son of the poverty-stricken Kelly family, and they decide to do something about the derelict farm.

Jennifer Johnston is, fortunately, not a Hollywood writer, so it’s not like a movie where the amazing Minnie would cure her uncle’s alcoholism, save the Kelly children from the brutality of their father, and make everything and everyone thrive. The Gates is much more realistic than that, and I’m glad it is, but being realistic isn’t enough to blow my mind.

Perhaps my problem with this novel is that it’s too short, and I feel that all the subplots (lessons in Irish history; flashbacks about the family’s past; dramatic events of the here and now) just don’t fit into this mere 160 pages. All these themes would need more words. And my other problem is that I feel that Johnston here is a much less sophisticated writer than she became later (of course, the main basis of this comparison is The Gingerbread Woman, which is a wonderful and delicate and heartbreaking novel), and this novel is just a little too obvious and not completely devoid of clichés.

Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

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A couple of paragraphs of this memoir were enough to convince me that this was going to be a good read. And indeed.

The first two paragraphs run as follows:

“My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born. Instead, they returned to Ireland when I was four, my brother, Malachy, three, the twins, Oliver and Eugene, barely one, and my sister, Margaret, dead and gone.

When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”

These paragraphs already demonstrate the talent of McCourt: his writing is beautiful and unsentimental, melodic, and captivating – it’s a pleasure to read. Even if the theme of the book is far from pleasant.

Frank McCourt was born in 1930 in New York, the first child of Irish parents. His parents lacked even the most basic ideas about what’s necessary to raise a family, yet, they went ahead and had four more children in quick succession, and after a couple of years they moved back to Ireland and eventually settled in Limerick, the home town of the mother, Angela. This is where Frank spent his childhood, in the deepest poverty – often hungry, going about with holes in his shoes, covering himself with coats instead of blankets, and in general, living a truly harsh life full of depravity.

The 1930s and 40s were probably not easy times in Ireland anyway, but the McCourt family sinks even deeper into squalor and poverty than even the most destitute of their neighbors. The McCourts have the worst of everything: more than one child dies in the family in a short period, and after each death, Angela sinks into an almost-catathonic state, which results in her neglecting her remaining children; the father, Malachy is a happy-go-lucky alcoholic, who doesn’t feel any particular remorse when he regularly spends all his unemployment benefit on supporting his drinking habit, and when he accidentally lands a job, he can stand the life of responsibility for a maximum of three weeks; when the family moves, they always end up in the most uninhabitable house on the street; moreover, their relatives are not exactly friendly towards them, not the least because Malachy is from Northern Ireland, and „has the look of a Protestant”, and it’s an almost unforgivable offense that Angela, who comes from a good Catholic family, consented to marry such a man.

Speaking about Catholicism: it wasn’t only the helplessness and irresponsibility of the parents that made it tough for a child to grow up in Ireland in that period – the church had a big part in this, too. McCourt illustrates this with descriptions about the religious education of children, which mainly consisted of teachers and priests filling children’s minds with concepts such as sin, redemption, and so on – concepts they were way too young to grasp, but at least they quickly learned that whatever they do is wrong, consequently they deserve all the punishment and all the misery they have to live through.

Should you have any doubt, I’ll try now to disperse them: this is an extremely maddening book. There’s such an abundance of foolish, weak, unstable, irresponsible, careless, unreliable adults in this book (that is, in Frank’s life), and these adults tend to behave in such pitiful and disgusting ways that I can only wonder how Frank managed to grow up into a functioning adult (and of course I also wonder that he ever lived long enough to grow up into an adult, having for parents people who were incapable of providing for even the most basic needs of a child, and who tended to cure a sick child with outlandish home remedies for weeks before ever considering that the child might need a doctor.)

As regards, however, the way the book is written, there’s nothing maddening here. On the contrary, the writing is rich and fascinating. I already mentioned the free and enticing flow of McCourt’s language, and I must also mention his remarkable humor and sense of irony. McCourt doesn’t write as cruelly and cynically about his childhood, as, say, Dimitri Verhulst does in his memoir, The Misfortunates – McCourt is more gentle and forgiving. Of course there’s some bitterness from time to time, and it’s all the more cutting and strong because it’s so rare. For example, when Frank’s father decides to go to England to look for work, Angela – despite all her previous bad experiences and her awareness of her husband’s legendary irresponsibility and unreliability – hopes that this time everything will turn out just fine. In the book this looks something like this:

“[Angela to Frank:] Don’t cry, don’t cry. Now that your father is gone to England surely our troubles will be over.
Surely.”

This single „surely” (clearly the laconic, ironic comment of the adult McCourt), written on a separate line, says more about how wrong the naive Angela was in her hopes than several pages of detailed litany could say.

So all my awe and respect go out to McCourt for the way he managed to write so pragmatically, so ironically, so enjoyably about all those things that couldn’t have been the least bit enjoyable to live through.

The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch

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Long ago a teacher of mine at university said that this is a text that eradicates itself – each paragraph cancels the meaning of the previous one, and no matter how hard you pay attention, in the end you’ll have no idea what’s just happened. And I couldn’t agree more.

I’ve read this novel altogether four times now, and each time I made a solemn resolution that I will pay attention extremely hard, and I’ll remember everything. It doesn’t work like that, though – not with this book. As soon as I reach the end, my memories are erased. In fact, I don’t even have to get to the very end – the last time I read it, I tried to jot down a couple of ideas about the story when I still had around 30 pages to go, and I couldn’t.

I felt like one of the characters, who gets lost one night in the bog, starts sinking slowly, and after a while he ponders the possibility that this is the time and place where he’ll die. And as his sense of self, life, and reality recedes, he experiences a great spiritual enlightenment, and realizes what is God, what is goodness, and what is love. Later on, after making it out alive from his near-death experience, he tries to describe his feelings and new knowledge to others but this turns out to be impossible: the experience doesn’t let itself be contained and shared with others.

This is what this novel is like. While reading, I’m aware of the presence of a great, frightfully beautiful, moral and spiritual something (and feel as if that something were happening to me as well), but the moment I finish reading, I’m unable to formulate the experience. The story closes itself off, and while it’s already rather curious and elusive while I’m in it, it gets utterly unfathomable once I’m out of it, and after a short while I start to wonder: did it really happen? Did I really read this?

This ultimate inscrutability probably has something to do with the main motif of the novel: looking (observing) – which is not coupled with understanding. There’s hardly any synonym of the word „look” which you wouldn’t find in this novel, starting right with the name of the castle where most of the story takes place: Gaze. And the people living in and around the castle hardly do anything else in the story than watch the others, look at each other, steal glances at each other, peer into each other’s eyes, stare at the other, and study and observe each other from all possible angles, standpoints, from near and far, openly and secretly, with desire, with fear, with silent prayer, with suspicion.

All this looking is for a reason – the characters want to understand what happens and why; they want to learn the others’ secrets; and they want to piece together a meaningful story out of all the tragic-melodramatic events going on in the gothic-fantastic Gaze castle, all centered around the evanescent Hannah – an almost mythical, perhaps saintly, perhaps mad, remorseful, self-torturing figure. After all, all looks are directed at her, and she builds and destroys herself and others by feeding on the power of all those gazes – but she only lets others look at her until it suits her needs, and all the while she remains unknowable, unrememberable, forever elusive.

And I – as a reader – am also only an onlooker. And it seems I must forget everything the moment I no longer have anyone or anything to look at on these pages.

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

Let-the-great-world-spinI could hardly say that I suffer from burnout as a reader, still, it doesn’t happen too often that I’m so enthralled by a novel that I can hardly wait for the day to pass until I can continue with it. Let the Great World Spin was such a novel.

This is the novel of an era and a city, and of course of the people who inhabit the city – people who drift together and drift apart in a seemingly random fashion, in New York, 1974. One of the main motifs of the book is the feat of the French high-wire artist, Philippe Petit who walked the distance between the Twin Towers in August 1974, several hundred feet above the spellbound New Yorkers. This event (or the somewhat fictionalized version of it) serves as the core of this novel because it is something every character relates to in one way or the other – they either watched the wire-walk, or heard about it, or took photos of it, and so on.

The story evolves very slowly, and at first it seems that there’s no connection at all between the different story-lines. In each chapter we encounter characters/narrators who live in absolutely different universes and whose fates seem to have nothing to do with each other, even if they live in the same city. There’s an Irish monk living in the Bronx ghetto who does charity work with the whores of the neighborhood, while doing a furious battle with himself and God; there’s an old judge who started out as a young idealist planning to make the world a better place all by himself, and his brokenhearted wife who lost their son in the Vietnam War; there’s the less-than-successful artist couple who cause a fatal accident, and the wife can’t stop blaming herself; and there’s a young prostitute convicted for robbery. The characters move in so different spheres of life that at first it’s hard to imagine how their fates might come together.

But Colum McCann writes with unbelievable ease and grace, and he connects the events – told by different narrators, seen from different angles – without the slightest trace of strain. Reading this novel is sheer pleasure – McCann’s voice is pure and natural, he doesn’t employ any of the usual postmodern tricks and annoying mannerisms, and the way he weaves the story-lines together is simple and effortless.

He writes beautifully and accurately about every character, and the narrative voice and the outlook of each character is unique and believable. But McCann isn’t only excellent at writing about human beings – the most amazing character of his novel is New York City itself. The (fictitious) New York of this book is dark-colorful, enigmatic and effervescent  – it’s not an idyllic city, but it’s very attractive, and it holds infinite promises and infinite dangers for all its inhabitants. McCann’s New York is a magical place where it’s indeed possible for everyone and everything to interconnect. And his city is as memorable and vivid as J. D. Salinger’s and Paul Auster’s New York.

Shenanigans by Donal Scannell & Sarah Champion (eds.)

Usually I’m not too interested in anthologies containing the works of young and/or inexperienced authors, because (perhaps a trifle irrationally) I’m afraid that the writings of such authors might not be that good, and I’m too impatient to spend my time reading juvenile, perhaps immature fiction. I’m sure I miss a lot of good literature this way, and I’m also sure that it won’t be me who first discovers some new talent and brings him to everyone’s attention, but anyway, it’s not easy to get rid of my prejudices and maybe I don’t really want to get rid of all of them, either.

So I really don’t know what impulse made me buy this book. I noticed it lying around in a pile of books for sale at a very low price in a local bookstore, but I didn’t like its Hungarian title (which is a kind of pun on the Hungarian words for „suffer” and „night”), I liked its cover even less, I considered the blurb boisterous and ridiculous at once (I don’t see why the writers of this book need to be collectively compared to Joyce, Swift and Beckett just because they happen to be Irish), I didn’t know anything about any of the authors who appear in this book, and to top it all, the short stories were translated by the students of a literary translation course and not by professional translators – therefore I promptly left the book where I found it. But then a couple of days later I was wandering around in the same bookstore again, noticed this book again and on a sudden impulse I bought it despite all the above-mentioned deterrents. And actually this turned out to be a good decision, because Shenanigans, despite an ugly exterior, a couple of less than perfect stories and the sometimes clumsy translations is an excellent book.

The 19 short stories collected in the book all depict the dark side of modern Irish life. The stories are populated with drug-users, drug-dealers, alcoholics, unemployed people, jailbirds, party animals and all kinds of lost and unhappy young people who live chaotic and hopeless lives. Naturally, it’s not really possible to write sunny stories about such people, and in fact there isn’t a single story in this collection which would depict, for instance, the life of a drug-user as a never-ending chain of merry partying and fantastic mental experiences.

And as regards the atmosphere of these stories, it varies greatly on a scale which has „mildly melancholic” on one end, and „utterly, unbearably bitter” on the other. Still, some stories contain traces of some morbid humor, which is quite good as it helps protect the reader from sinking into sea-deep depression while reading this book.

For instance, my favorite funny story in the collection, „Goldfish” is about a drug-dealer whose house is raided by the police. The man and his girlfriend quickly get rid of all drug-related material, but the man suffers a sudden panic attack and he quickly eats a whole bunch of LSD-stamps with a goldfish picture on them, and afterwards he experiences brutally intense and life-like hallucinations. Of course, if you care to think about it, this is not too funny, but the way the author handles his material is so entertaining and the outcome of the story is so bizarre that I couldn’t help laughing at the protagonist.

Anyway, I felt that I had to enjoy the lighter pieces of the collection as much as I could, exactly because the majority of the stories is so dark and depressing. The story called „A Small Cut”, for instance, tells us about a nearly bankrupt university student who in a sudden (though understandable) fit of anger has herself fired from her job as a waitress. Immediately after this impulsive act she realizes that this way she managed to make herself virtually penniless. Fortunately she has a girlfriend who offers her an easy and well-paying job in exchange for a small percentage of her future income – and the rest, I guess, is easy to figure out. Of course I’ve read similar stories before, but still, I’m always driven to despair when a writer shows me how easy it can be for anyone to sink below the surface.

By the way, despite the similarities in terms of character types and themes, the stories of this collection are quite varied in form and content. There is a story told by a very unconventional narrator; there is one which is written is written as a diary and concentrates on small details and events as a diary would; and there is more than one in which we are offered a glimpse into some highly unstable and somewhat deranged minds.

Of course not every short story is a masterpiece in this book, but I didn’t react to this collection in the way I usually react to similar anthologies. I didn’t feel cheated and I didn’t feel that I had to read several bad, mediocre or boring stories just in order to find a couple of good ones and that perhaps it wasn’t worth my time. Instead, I felt that I had the pleasure to read a whole lot of good or excellent stories, and that I would be happy to read other works even by those writers whose stories were not that stupendously good.

And this is my only problem with this book: it made me interested in several writers whose works I may never come across again. Even though I learned from the short biographical notes at the end of the collection that a couple of the authors have other works published, but there are several others who simply seem to have disappeared entirely. For instance, I could find no information whatsoever about the author of my favorite story, „Canal Bank Walk”, a mysterious writer called DEX.357 and it’s quite possible that he didn’t publish anything else apart from this single story – which makes me quite sad. So I feel as if I had been offered a treat and after tasting several delicious meals I had been left there hungry for more but without the possibility to satisfy my appetite.

But of course I don’t regret reading this book at all, and I would highly recommend it to anyone in search of a literary ride through the dark side of contemporary Ireland.

Tenderwire by Claire Kilroy

For me it’s always thrilling to read about someone with a passion for the sake of which he is willing to sacrifice everything. And it’s even more thrilling if the person doesn’t know in advance what that object is which will move him so much that he happily destroys his regular life for its sake – and therefore his obsession comes as a surprise even to himself.

The protagonist of Tenderwire, the violinist Eva Tyne is such a character. At the beginning of the story Eva’s music career is just about kicking off: she meets great success with her debut performance as a solo violinist and it can be assumed that all the great concert halls of the world will soon welcome her warmly. Eva is a talented and hardworking musician, and even though she lives a rather messy life, she doesn’t seem to be overtly passionate or someone prone to obsessive behavior. But then things take a turn for the worse: Eva ends up in the hospital due to an unexplained, sudden illness; then upon her leave from the hospital she spends the night with an attractive stranger, Daniel, which leads to her breaking up with her boyfriend. Not long after this, she meets Alexander, a suspicious-looking, rather aggressive guy who offers a (supposedly) Stradivari violin for her to buy. Eva lays aside all her suspicions and fears, visits Alexander and has a go with the violin – and she becomes its slave at the very first minute. She has some common sense, though, so she runs through a series of questions in her mind (how come that this guy has an original Stradivari? what if it was stolen? can it really be original? how will I get money enough to buy it?), but then she sweeps away all her questions and doubts and decides to get the violin, no matter what it takes – but the situation only becomes really tricky after she makes the purchase.

Claire Kilroy works with several stock characters and situations, and she casually places highly annoying red herrings all over the story. As regards the stock characters, you may think of Alexander, your typical dangerous-looking Russian (or Chechnyan?) immigrant who deals in shady business; or you can think of Eva’s ex-boyfriend, tender and sensitive Kryštof; or of Daniel, the maddeningly good-looking, exotic prototype of the Latin lover who seems to have nothing in his head besides a good deal of narcissism. None of them is an interesting character, they are no more than embodiments of certain prototypes. And as regards the situations of the novel, well, I wasn’t exactly overcome with the sense of „I’ve never seen anything like this before” when it turned out that Eva became an artist mainly because of her unhappy past (which included the disappearance of her father and her tense relations with her mother).

All these clichés could well make this novel thoroughly irritating, but as it happens, they do not ruin the book. Because there are two elements in Tenderwire which are anything but cliché-like and ordinary: Eva and the violin itself. Claire Kilroy depicts the connection between Eva and the instrument, Eva’s growing, mad love for her violin, and the way the girl and the instrument virtually become one inseparable entity in such a beautiful, amazing and often creepy fashion that it compensated for the facts that the minor characters were no more than hollow shells and that several, seemingly important sub-plots led to nowhere.

As for Eva, she’s a hugely unreliable narrator with a wry, cynical sense of humor. She often hides important plot details or diverts our attention away from the most revealing details, with the consequence that the real significance of certain events only becomes clear much later, and this makes the novel almost unputdownable. Moreover, Eva’s unreliable story-telling method also signifies her attachment to her violin: she’s always afraid that someone will try to tear her apart from the violin, and by not letting the reader know everything about the instrument, in a way she keeps it safe to herself.

And the violin itself stands at the center of the story like some enigmatic, magical object: an object which cannot be truly understood and which means something else for everyone who comes in contact with it: for Daniel, who invests money in it so that Eva can buy it, it simply means good business; for a minor character who builds violins and fixes broken ones, it’s a valuable masterpiece; for its allegedly „real” owners, it means a piece of their family history and their rightful inheritance. For Eva, the violin is all this at once – and much more, too: an object, a passion which truly takes possession of her soul just as she tries to take possession of the violin itself. And reaching the end of the story, you can make up your mind as to who owns the other more, and whether it was worth Eva’s while to give up everything for the sake of the magic violin.

The Gathering by Anne Enright

The protagonist and narrator of the novel is Veronica Hegarty, one of the several children of the Hegarty clan. The story starts off with Veronica’s brother, Liam committing suicide. After the death of Liam, the family – whose remaining members now live scattered all over the world – needs to be brought together for the wake. The responsibility falls to Veronica since she was the closest to Liam. So she informs their mother about Liam’s death, travels to England to organize the transportation of Liam’s body and deal with all the paperwork, in one word, she arranges everything that needs to be arranged, so that in the end, every family member can properly mourn for Liam in their old home, and then everybody can go home and get on with their lives. Everybody except Veronica, who cannot deal with the tragedy in an easy way.

I won’t go into more details, there’s no need to anyway because the novel doesn’t have a story proper. This novel is about the period when Veronica slowly and more or less sufficiently comes to terms with the fact that her brother is dead and regains her ability to live a more or less normal life again. During these months Veronica falls out of time and the everyday course of events, her whole being is filled up with her loss and all she is able to do is to think about her past and her family, while neglecting her husband and children. She thinks (and talks) about her relationship with her brother; about the history of the Hegarty family, starting from her grandparents’ generation; and about that tumultuous event which happened at their grandparents’ place when she was eight and Liam was nine, and which forever changed the course of Liam’s life.

Besides Veronica’s mourning, the novel is also about the processing and rewriting of the past and about the question whether it’s possible at all to rewrite one’s memories. Just to name a few of the rewriting-revisiting methods: Veronica recalls everything she knows about her family and keeps coming up with alternative family (hi)stories which could easily have been true (e.g. there’s a scene right at the beginning of the book, full of suppressed sexuality, which tells the story of the first meeting of Veronica’s grandparents – then it turns out that in fact the male protagonist of the scene wasn’t Veronica’s grandfather but someone else). Veronica also visits the places which were significant in her life for one reason or the other, and she hopes that by these visits she will be able to recall, relive and then perhaps finally forget certain events of her past. And she also tries to explain why the lives of her family members took certain turns (however, the explanations keep changing: at one point Veronica names a specific event which ruined Liam’s life forever, but later on she says that Liam would have ended up living the same screwed-up life, even if that particular traumatic event had never happened.)

Anne Enright writes about the way memory works, emotions change and thoughts race in one’s head in an authentic (and authentically frustrating) way. Veronica’s thoughts are often conveyed in a stream-of-consciousness fashion, with random associations and ideas piling up on one another, so with some exaggeration I can almost say that in one paragraph we are reading about the organization of Liam’s wake, in the next we are reading about the American boy who used to be Veronica’s lover at the university, and in the next we are reading about the summer when her grandmother took her, Liam and another one of their sisters to the sea. Despite all this, the novel is not impossible to follow – only, it requires more attention than an „average” book. Not only because it’s often not obvious which year we are in and whom we are talking about, but also because we can never know for sure about any particular detail whether Veronica is telling the truth or she’s again rewriting and reinterpreting her memories and trying to fictionalize reality.

I assume anyone who read more than two posts on this blog is well aware that I’m deeply interested in the themes this novel is about. And Anne Enright writes about all of them well.