The Good People, by Hannah Kent

29248613At the heart of Hannah Kent’s The Good People is the difficulty of caring for a child with severe disabilities. Raising children is hard enough, but Nóra Leahy finds herself in the position of taking care of her grandson, who can’t speak, walk, screams constantly, and needs almost round-the-clock care. Meanwhile, her husband has just died, the new priest is preaching against the local “handy woman,” and everyone else is busy taking care of their own families and farms. In her despair, Nóra begins to believe that the child in her house is a changeling and that her real grandson is living with the fairies, the Good People.

The Good People is narrated by a trio of women living in the small Irish village in County Kerry during the winter of 1825-1826. (The novel is based on an article the author found about a real case involving a changeling.) Nóra is the primary narrator, but we also hear from her hired girl, Mary, and the local handywoman (basically a hedge witch), Nance Roche. Nóra’s chapters reveal her growing depression and frustration with her grandson, Micheál. The boy suffers from a condition that might be a kind of cerebral palsy. (At least, it seems that way to a modern reader. To an uneducated Irish woman in the 1820s, however, Micheál’s condition can only be explained by the fairies.) Mary gives us an outsider’s perspective, even though she also comes from a small village herself. Mary grows increasingly fearful of her employer as Nóra tries increasingly dangerous “cures” on Micheál. When we’re in Nóra’s head, her actions make sense. When we’re in Mary’s, Nóra is volatile and possibly unhinged.

Nance Roche was the most interesting character to me. Her position at the perimeter of village life (literally and figuratively) is tenuous. She keeps herself fed and warm by treating injuries, problems, illnesses, and bad dreams. But she’s losing ground to the new priest. The priest isn’t much help with Micheál, but he is very effective at convincing the villagers that her work is superstition and un-Christian. If she can “cure” Micheál, Nance thinks, perhaps she can save herself from being cast out and ending up starving on the road. The Good People grows increasingly tense as Nance and Nóra try to “cure” Micheál and Mary tries to keep the boy from harm.

The Good People is a fascinating look at a community and characters fracturing under strain. I really enjoy books where characters who believe they are right come into conflict with each other and Nance and Nóra’s trial is a spectacular example. The women are so entrenched in their views that the lawyers’ questions might as well be in another language. Everyone in this book thinks they are right. Readers will of course have their own opinion about who is right and wrong in this book, but being able to see inside Nance, Nóra, and Mary’s heads might give us sympathy for all three women, no matter how opposed they are.

The Coroner’s Daughter, by Andrew Hughes

32191820Andrew Hughes’ The Coroner’s Daughter is an entertaining book about a girl who refuses to stay put or stop asking questions. Abigail Lawless, unlike many other girls in early nineteenth century Dublin, was indulged by her coroner father, so she never “learned her place.” It’s a good thing she didn’t, because then the deaths of an infant, his mother, and several others would have remained a mystery.

In the Dublin of 1816, a ruling of death by suicide not only meant that cause of death might not be determined but also that the body could not be buried in consecrated ground. I bring this up because it encapsulates the major conflict in this book of science and rationality against religious fundamentalism. Abigail and her father get caught in the middle because they have to tread lightly between a powerful religious cadre, the status quo, and their determination to see justice done and truth outed.

I enjoyed the irrepressible Abigail a lot, but I found myself disappointed by the conclusion to The Coroner’s Daughter. At the risk of saying too much, I think the solution to the mystery was too muddled and too much of a commentary on the conflict between religion and science. When I thought the solution was a matter of human failings, I was much more engaged in the story. That said, Abigail makes up for a lot on this book and I’m glad that the coda at the end leaves an opening for a sequel.

In the Woods, by Tana French

237209It should come as no surprise that the people who are tasked with finding out the truth get lied to constantly. What came as a surprise, as I read Tana French’s masterly In the Woods, was how much a detective might struggle with discerning truth from lies. Throughout the novel, Dublin Murder squad detective Robert Ryan is lied to by witnesses, suspects, and his own memory. It’s fascinating to spend time in his head as he tries to work out what happened to a small girl found dead at an archaeological dig and what happened to his friends twenty years ago.

Knocknaree, near Dublin, has been a no-go area for Ryan ever since his two friends disappeared and he was found clinging to a tree with blood in his shoes. He and his partner, Cassie Maddox, have the sheer bad luck of landing the case because they weren’t busy with anything else when Katy Devlin’s body is found on an altar stone at an archaeological dig near the housing estate. Just being back in the little development gives him the terrors and sets his judgment askew.

Because we’re riding along in Ryan’s head for a month, we are treated to the full tension and tedium of a murder investigation. Ryan and Maddox chase down dozens of leads, some more plausible than others. We are so close to the action that it’s just as hard for us readers to tell what piece of information is actually relevant to what happened and what is just more of the useless data churned up with detectives come in to shine bright lights into every dark corner. As if this wasn’t enough to deal with it, Ryan is wracking his brains to try and recover lost memories about what happened in the woods when he was twelve.

Ryan is a strangely self-reflective detective. Most of the ones I’ve encountered in fiction are oblivious to their personal failings. He’s eloquent on the workings and failings of his brain. That brain often seems like an adversary, as weird as that is. He knows that his past trauma is leading him to make mistakes but he seems helpless to stop himself from yelling at witnesses or devoting time to leads that don’t pan out. We know he’s going to crash and burn if he keeps it up, but if he doesn’t, we might never find out what happened twenty years ago and if it has anything to do with what happened to little Katy Devlin.

Once the twists start, however, the fog that surrounds Katy’s murder starts to lift. I love it when mysteries manage to both confound me but, once the solution is revealed, make me look back and see how inevitable it all was. In the Woods did both for me, as well as give me a well-spoken, emotionally hapless narrator to follow through the entire investigation. This book is one of the best mysteries I’ve read in a while.

Modern Gods, by Nick Laird

What does religion give us? Most would answer, I think, with comfort, answers to big questions, and so on. In Nick Laird’s Modern Gods, the answer is a lot more cynical. This novel takes a while to approach its thesis, treating us to the domestic dramas of a North Irish family before heading into the wilds of Papua New Guinea to explore an emerging cargo cult. By the end, however, I was left with some profound thoughts about what religion gives its adherents in this life, in addition to its promises about the next.

Northern Ireland and Papua New Guinea might be the furthest places from each other in terms of geography and culture. But in Modern Gods, the two countries are linked by the Donnellys. Liz Donnelly, an anthropologist and former TV presenter, is given a new job presenting on a program for the BBC about the world’s newest religion. After stopping in her hometown in Ulster, she heads off to the island of New Ulster in Papua New Guinea. The novel then splits its time between what Liz is learning about a conflict between a woman who is creating her own religion on the spot and the local Christian missionaries. Meanwhile, her sister, Allison, learns that her new husband Stephen was once an active member of the Ulster Freedom Fighters. (We also learn about Liz’s mother’s cancer and her brother’s affair, which I don’t think add all that much to the narrative.)

By the middle of the book, things start to become clear as Liz’s subject and Stephen start to talk about why they’ve done certain things. We learn that religion, in addition to providing emotional comfort and answers about where we came from and what will happen after we die, also has some tangible benefits in this life. Liz’s subject, Belef, has turned religion into a means of getting back at the Christian missionaries she thinks killed her daughter. Her son, however, has turned to Christianity because being the right-hand man for the missionaries has raised his status to the point where he gets to call the shots around the village instead of the men who would traditionally lead. It was fascinating to see religious people from Northern Ireland and Papua New Guinea reflect on their beliefs in parallel.

I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I really enjoyed the end of the book where it became clear that religion is a road to power for some people. On the other, it takes Laird a long time to get there—so long I wasn’t sure what Modern Gods was trying to say. Thinking back, I’m not sure if more editing would’ve helped this book reach its target more quickly because I can see why we needed so much of, for example, Stephen’s story to understand how religion gave Northern Irish Catholics and Protestants an almighty okay for their fighting. That said, I still feel that the first half of Modern Gods is front loaded with too much family drama that does nothing for the overall purpose of the narrative.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 27 June 2017.

The Hunger Within, by J.M. Hewitt

At the height of the Troubles, one would think that any normal people would keep their heads down and wait for a lull in the general violence. But in J.M. Hewitt’s short novel, The Hunger Within, five people get so tangled up in each others’ misery and anger that it’s just a matter of time before someone ends up dead.

The novel opens with Bronwyn’s husband Danny heading out late one night. She knows he’s involved with the Irish Republican Army, but doesn’t say anything. She’s too weary of her dull, barren life to take much notice of anything that’s going on around her. The next thing we know, a mixed religion couple (something much frowned upon in 1981 in Belfast) is attacked in the street. Protestant Connor is—fortunately for him—unsuccessfully kneecapped. His Catholic girlfriend, Rose, is not physically harmed, but she is deeply shaken by the attack and the fact that their secret is out.

Almost immediately, Danny is sent to the Maze for his crime, just in time to volunteer for the hunger strike. Danny is, curiously, the only first person narrator in The Hunger Within. We get a ring side view as he starts to starve himself to death. He is not repentant about shooting Connor or any of the crimes he must have committed for the IRA. The only thing he regrets is being away from Bronwyn and the mess he helped make of their marriage.

I found in strange that Danny would be a first person narrator when most of the action centers on Bronwyn, Rose, and Connor’s mother, Mary. Once Rose moves in with Connor and Mary, Mary begins a gaslighting campaign to get rid of the girl. Mary goes so far as to agree to Danny’s request that she get Bronwyn to visit her husband if he will help her get Rose to leave. (Mary initially visited just to meet the man who shot her son and maybe find out why he did it.) Meanwhile, Bronwyn struggles with a sudden miscarriage and past due bills.

Mary and Danny are the only characters who know the full story of what’s going on. Bronwyn, Rose, and Connor are very much in the dark. As things escalate with Mary taking advantage of Danny’s IRA connections, any reader can see that someone (probably more than one someone) is going to get killed. Though short, I found The Hunger Within to be a rather satisfying thriller (even if I don’t fully understand some of Hewitt’s decisions).

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration.

The Trees, by Ali Shaw

Some people need a catalyst to spur them to become who they were always meant to be: better, wiser, stronger. Adrien Thomas’s catalyst, as we learn in Ali Shaw’s The Trees, is more catastrophic than most. One night, he goes to sleep after eating cheap takeaway and sulking about his life. When he wakes in the morning, he discovers that the primeval forest has returned with a vengeance. Massive trees have erupted everywhere, destroying houses, roads, and anything that stands in their path. Civilization collapses as the trees rise. But Adrien, miserable and cowardly as he is, now has a mission in life: to find his wife.

The Trees is a story about learning what we are capable of. The main story belongs to Adrien. Adrien used to be a teacher, until he gave it up because he couldn’t stand his pupils’ bullying. He never found his purpose in life. Instead, he would spent his days worrying about everything and annoying his wife. Before the trees came, Adrien’s wife went to a conference in Ireland. Without planes or boats, the Irish Sea seems an insurmountable barrier. Apart from that, without his new friend Hannah’s help, Adrien wouldn’t have made it very far in this brave new world.

As Adrien slowly (sometimes painfully so) learns to stop worrying about everything and giving up before he starts anything, Hannah learns just how brutal nature can be. Before the trees came, Hannah worked at a plant nursery. She learned as much as she could about the natural world. When the trees came, Hannah briefly entertained the hope that humanity could now live in Edenic harmony with nature. Humans being humans, however, eventually disabuse Hannah of her naiveté. So while Adrien learns how to be less of a coward, Hannah learns that the good sometimes have to do bad thing to protect their own.

Together, Adrien, Hannah, Hannah’s son Seb, and Hiroko—a Japanese student stranded in England while on a school trip—make their way west through the forest. They are possibly the least likely questers in literary history. Adrien has no clue what he’s doing most of the time. Seb and Hiroko would be happy just wandering off into the woods to live like wild people. After Hannah badly compromises her principles, she frequently gets lost in self-castigation.

The quartet are a mess and they could really have used a wizard a couple of times. They never get a wizard, but they have their guides. Hannah occasionally spots kirin, who show her where the group needs to go when they have a crisis. Adrien’s helpers, the whisperers, are less obviously helpful. They haunt him rather than actively intercede for him. It isn’t until much later that Adrien (and we, the readers) learn what they were trying to tell our erstwhile hero.

I was hooked on The Trees from the first chapter. The only thing that keeps me from giving this delightfully tense adult fable a five-start review is a slow, bloody passage that takes place after the questers arrive in Ireland. The narrative looses touch with the mystery of the forest for a little too long while Hannah wrestles with her conscience. But the ending put the novel right back on track. On balance, I really enjoyed this book.

Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: recommended for readers with a tendency to give up too soon or to beat themselves up when they make mistakes.

Loving, by Henry Green

The upstairs/downstairs life we’ve seen on Downton Abbey and similar shows is always high drama. They’re soap operas with great clothes and better manners. The upstairs/downstairs life in Henry Green’s Loving is much more satirical. The servants are not polished and the family are always complaining about their first-world problems. This book is the perfect antidote for people who roll their eyes at the terrible seriousness of Downton Abbey.

Originally published in 1949, Loving centers on the newly promoted butler and the head maid. Over the course of the book, Charley Raunce pursues Edith while trying to fill the previous butler’s shoes. There’s also a war on—which everyone uses as an excuse when something goes wrong. So while the staff tries to reconcile the lady of the house to pink blotting paper (the only available color because of the war), they also have to deal with the family’s pet peacocks, the housekeeper’s moral vapors, and the cook’s terror of a nephew, who is visiting.

There’s not much plot to Loving, but it doesn’t need plot. Green treats us to a series of comic scenarios highlighting the foibles of the cast. My favorite moments are when Charley tries to use the old butler’s notes to blackmail guests into giving him higher tips, only to have them spectacularly backfire. This book is a quick, entertaining read, definitely one to chuckle at over a cup of tea.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration.

The Wonder, by Emma Donoghue

If Lib Wright had had the full details of her posting as a private nurse to Anna O’Donnell, she would not have taken the assignment. She would have packed up immediately and gone back to her hospital in England. But since she was already in Ireland (and since travel in 1859 was not easy), Lib decided to stay and be part of the two nurse team assigned to watch the girl, day and night, for two weeks. Lib and Sister Michael have been hired by a committee to determine if Anna has truly stopped eating. The Wonder, by Emma Donoghue, is based on the nineteenth century phenomena of “fasting girls” and the Catholic tradition of Anorexia mirabilis (the miracle of no longer needing to eat).

The committee paying Lib and Sister Michael have designed a test to find out if Anna’s anorexia is actually miraculous, or if the O’Donnell family were cheating somehow. Lib, trained by Florence Nightingale and a veteran nurse of the Crimean War, is deeply skeptical. The local doctor believes that Anna is evolving into a new variety of human who can live without food. Anna’s village priest and Sister Michael are willing to take the “miracle” at face value. People are traveling from far and wide to get a blessing from Anna or say a prayer with her. Meanwhile, Lib is making notes about the girl’s deteriorating condition; Anna is clearly suffering the effects of severe malnutrition.

Anna is very good at keeping secrets. When she speaks, Anna repeats quotes from the Bible or The Imitation of Christ or various prayers. Her answers to Lib’s questions frustrate the nurse no end. The narrative is a slow unraveling of the girl’s secrets and the story grows increasingly tense as Anna gets worse and worse. It’s clear she is dying and it seems like only Lib wants to save her. Everyone else wants to see Anna acclaimed as a miracle or exposed as a fraud.

The Wonder had me from the first chapter. Lib is a terrific character caught in a wrenching dilemma. It was heartbreaking to watch her metaphorically beat her head against the brick wall of Catholic belief and pseudoscience. Even though Anna’s story is outlandish, it’s based on actual history. It’s clear Donoghue did sterling research on Anorexia mirabilis, fasting girls, and post-famine Ireland—though the story never gets bogged down in exposition. I can’t say too much, but I will admit that the ending of this book almost had me in tears.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 20 September 2016. 

The Little Red Chairs, by Edna O’Brien

There are people who deserve second changes and others who very much do not. Edna O’Brien shows us both in The Little Red Chairs. As the novel opens, a man has come to the village of Cloonoila, Ireland, to open a New Age clinic. No one knows much about his past, but his charm opens doors everywhere—at least until the truth about his past gets out. When the metaphorical doors close, Fidelma gets caught out in the cold because she had the misfortune to fall in with with the charming man.

The title of the book comes from the Sarajvo Red Line, a commemoration for all the people who were killed during the siege between 1992 and 1996. The so-charming man who ruins Fidelma’s life is based on Radovan Karadžić, a real-life war criminal who was recently sentenced to forty years in prison by the International Criminal Court. Like Karadžić, Dr. Dragan reinvented himself as a healer. He reminds me strongly of Rasputin, though I know Dragan is taken from life. Dragan is awfully good at spinning bullshit and having people believe him. He’s just so very charming, at least until his façade cracks and we see the megalomaniac underneath.

We never get inside Dragan’s head; we only see him through the eyes of others. In the first half of The Little Red Chairs, our “narrator” is a chorus of voices—sometimes individuals and sometimes the collective conscious of Cloonoila—who eagerly gossip about the mysterious doctor as well as everyone’s business. We don’t learn much about Fidelma until Dragan has settled in somewhat. Fidelma is the much younger wife of Jack and very much wants a child. Nothing has worked. When she falls under the doctor’s spell, she convinces him to sleep with her so that she can get pregnant. Ten weeks into the pregnancy, Dragan’s cover is blown and something truly terrible happens to Fidelma and her child.

In the second half of the book, the story’s focus settles on Fidelma and her new life in London. She has left Cloonoila because she can’t bear to be around people who know of her attachment to Dragan and because of the terrible thing. She is tainted by association, she believes. So she resettles among London’s immigrant population, scrounging a scant living and hiding more than anything else. No one ever says it out loud in the second half, but Fidelma is in desperate need of a second chance.

Curiously, where many novels emphasize the connections between characters—however tangential—this book reinforces the isolation of its characters from each other. Everyone is living out their own tales. Even when we hear from the Cloonoila collective, no one appears to be strongly attached to anyone else. (At least, not the living. More than one character has a deep connection to a ghost.) The constant background stories just reinforce the individuality of each character. When Fidelma moves to London and attends group sessions with immigrants and political refugees, every story is unique and none of the characters is able to sympathize with anyone else, they are so wounded.

The Little Red Chairs was nothing like I expected. I had only read a few reviews and the inside jacket copy. In retrospect, I wish I had gone into this book blind. I focused too much on Dragan in the beginning before realizing that this was a story about the lives he touched after he landed in Ireland and how war crimes taint even the innocent by association. The more I read, I saw that the book was more about characters who get stuck by the worst thing that ever happened to them. This is not a book about moving on.

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

Reading David Mitchell’s Slade House a couple months ago sent me back to the library to find a copy of The Bone Clocks to learn more about the strange world of the Deep Stream and the Shaded Way and people who leapfrog through time. Unfortunately, reading The Bone Clocks was a long exercise in frustration. Slade House was a wonderful example of literary horror, but The Bone Clocks makes me think that Mitchell should take more of a lesson from genre writers about narrator selection and pacing before he writes another literary/genre book. Because I enjoyed Cloud Atlas and Slade House so very much, hope strung me along through the entire 600+ pages of The Bone Clocks; I kept waiting and waiting for the book to get good.

The Bone Clocks spans about 40 years of history, from the mid-1980s through political and ecological collapse in the mid-2040s. The novel begins and ends with Holly Sykes. In the mid-1980s, she is an angry teenager who runs away from home. Holly had some odd experiences when she was younger—hearing people who weren’t there, being visited by a woman who wasn’t there—but things get really weird as she tries to find a place to stay. There are hints dropped about two opposing sides at war. Holly is briefly caught up in some psychic combat before returning to her life as a prickly teen.

It’s not until many, many pages later that the war between the Deep Stream (the good guys) and the Shaded Way (the bad guys) resumes. Until that war resumes, we are treated to the perspectives of Holly’s partner—a war correspondent—and her midlife friend—a washed up writer. I have no idea what these two narrators contributed to the story. All the action was clearly happening somewhere else, to other people.

When the war does resume, everything happens too fast and there are too many wise old characters sharing history and exposition left and right. Info-dumping is one of the chief complaints readers have about genre fiction and it is bad in this part of The Bone Clocks. I am surprised that a writer who did so well with multiple narrators and epically scaled stories stumbled so badly with The Bone Clocks. 

After the climax of the war between the Shaded Way and the Deep Stream, this book still isn’t over. There’s a long epilogue in which we return to Holly’s life, long after she got caught up in the fight. I didn’t see the purpose of this part of the novel, either. If The Bone Clocks had been narrated solely by Holly or Marinus (or narrated by the two of them in turns), I think the book would have been fantastic. Instead, I got frustrated waiting for Holly or Marinus or even Hugo to pop up again and take me back to what I saw as the main action.

I am really disappointed by this book.