Book review: ‘Truth and Dare’ by Martina Devlin

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Martina Devlin describes the eleven Irish women featured in her collection Truth and Dare as her ‘heroes’. Her admiration is evident; it is impossible to read this book and not discover something interesting. Devlin’s impressive research is fuelled by her conviction that these women were overlooked – sometimes even blatantly abused – in their own lifetimes. The collection is an attempt to redress the balance and give these women the recognition they deserve. It’s compelling and timely, particularly after the 2018 Irish Abortion Referendum, and is full of powerful moments. In Nana’s Ark’, Nana’s father smuggles her onto a merchant ship inside a chest stuffed with wool so that she can attend a convent school in France. In ‘Tucked Away’, two sisters burn to death at a society dance when the crinoline of their dresses catches a spark from the fireplace. Devlin shows us the underbelly of history, tells it from perspectives normally suppressed or dismissed, and it makes for refreshing reading.

It’s an ambitious goal, rejuvenating the legacies of eleven different historical figures within two hundred and sixty pages, and perhaps at times Devlin stretches herself thinly. In her determination to do the lives of the women justice, she prefaces each story with a detailed non-fiction biography and wraps it up with an italicised summation of their subject’s impact on Irish society. In the introduction to the collection, Devlin admits that she was unsure whether to write the book as fiction or non-fiction. ‘I decided on fiction because of the uncanny hold stories have over us,’ she writes. ‘Fiction is laced with enchantment. It hums with energy. It has the power to transport readers – to let us inhabit someone else’s life. Stories connect us with one another on a more intimate level than history or biography allows, creating space for magic to happen – the imaginative leap.’ In fact, Devlin’s storytelling is compelling enough to render the biographies unnecessary. The stories are short and dense, filled with context and historical knowledge, but the best moments are those that are emotional and human. Mary Ann McCracken is the only member of her family to walk with her condemned brother to the scaffold. Incarcerated Hanna Sheehy Skeffington is visited mid-hunger-strike by the ghost of her dead husband. It is only his company that keeps her from imagining delicious meals and distracts her from the cup of congealed tea in the corner. In these moments, the transformative effect Devlin sets out to create begins to emerge.

While fiction ‘brings history to life’, it does also have limitations. Readers are unlikely to be able to inhale facts from a story the same way they would from a reference book, though from a fictional account of someone’s life they are likely to get much else: atmosphere, context etc. Devlin is aware of these limitations, stating in her introduction that ‘none of these stories represent the total sum of the woman concerned. After all, each of them led fascinating and productive lives, whereas a short story can do no more than filter light towards some element or other which caught my attention.’ The stories are most successful when Devlin realises this point and reduces her own scope, choosing one or two moments within a person’s life and using them to paint a human, rather than a heroine.

In ‘Somebody’, featuring activist Anna Parnell (1852–1911) and ‘No Other Place’, about writer Alice Milligan (1866-1953), Devlin appears to do just this. In each, she describes a long scene – a visit to the pawnbroker’s, a conversation with a policeman over a cup of tea – and uses objects to trigger memories, a line of dialogue to open up the character and invite the reader into their past. This method is more satisfying for a historical short story and is well-executed by Devlin. Sometimes, the stories are so detailed they become stationary tableaus – revealing and beautifully described – but slightly overwhelmed by biography. The technique would be hard to sustain as a writer and difficult to absorb as a reader in anything longer than a short story but are probably a result of its form and the need to be concise. Devlin can’t draw it out because she doesn’t have time but, by unlocking information with imagery, manages to convey an extraordinary amount of research in very few pages.

The concision is admirable but it is possible that, in Truth and Dare, Devlin has the making of eleven novels rather than a collection of short stories. The content is arresting and disturbing – the description of Hanna Sheehy Skeffington dreading her impending force-feeding is particularly brutal – and could easily withstand a more thorough examination. Devlin is an expert researcher and prolific writer, having already written nine novels and several short story collections. Truth and Dare is a tantalising hint as to what could be possible, almost a catalogue of stories waiting to be novels or biopic movies starring Meryl Streep. At this time, with these characters, I’m sure a lot of people would buy tickets.

About the reviewer

Ellen Lavelle is a postgraduate student on The University of Warwick Writing Programme. An aspiring novelist and screenwriter, she has worked with The Young Journalist Academy since the age of fourteen, writing articles and making short films for their website. She’s currently working on a crime novel, a historical fiction novel and the script for a period drama. She interviews authors for her blog and you can follow her @ellenrlavelle on Twitter.

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The beauty and complexity of Irish literature

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If Ireland is seen by some people in the world as some kind of romantic ideal, it must be seen only through the prism of eyes that have not seen news or history of the killings in the North, or how Irish women were considered far too lovely for contraception (and still today too lovely to be given the right to abortions). Ireland, far from being a mystic isle of pure beauty and tribal innocence, is – like so many countries – a land of contradictions and complexities.

Ireland’s greatest litterateurs have embraced these sometimes conflicting differences to create works of fiction that are as beautiful as they are in themselves complex; that do not shy from painting the horrors that have befallen the island at times, but find lyrical ways of expressing these to readers across the world. Irish writers write against their own foolishness and flaws as much as they do against those of their fellow countrymen or those of colonial invaders – and in doing so they find ways of expressing truths that are delightful and intricate and small; and thereby discovering beauty that is real and full of power and significance.

Perhaps the lyricism and beauty of Irish writing is in part down to the tradition of oral storytelling and poetry within Irish history, combined with the suppression of the Irish language itself during the centuries of British colonialism. With the brutal restrictions placed upon not just the Irish people themselves, but the very words and language with which they used to communicate, the British, in a way, created the conditions necessary for new forms of writing to emerge. Irish writing so often seems at times to be born from the fragmentation of old certainties, and the need to say important things in an almost coded fashion, so as to avoid discovery. Fiction and poetry – creative writing in general – play a crucial role in conveying meaning through indirect means (metaphor, allegory, etc.). And so, in the face of an increasingly restricted and complex reality, Irish writers created their own worlds – spun into life in the most beautiful, unique and creative ways.

In this view, Irish writers rise to a cultural prominence in which they are defined both by their creative genius and by their nationality. Their identity is absorbed by their craft, and the geopolitics of it. This is an idea captured by Sean O Faolain – a pillar of twentieth century Irish short story writing – who wrote:

“Irish literature came to its great period of effervescence in a romantic mood whose concept of a writer was almost like the concept of a priest: you did not just write, you lived writing; it was a vocation; it was part of the national resurgence to be a writer.”

In honour of these writers, we have brought together a far from exhaustive list of our recommended Irish books to read at any time; but perhaps most fittingly on St Patrick’s day.

You can read our book list here.

10 books to read on St Patrick’s Day

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Curling up with a book (or doing anything with a book, for that matter) may not be how you would first think to spend your St Patrick’s Day.

A national holiday for the Emerald Isle which has been adopted by peoples across the world with no connection to Ireland but a keen desire to use any excuse to drink a lot and have a party, St Patrick’s day is perhaps more often seen as an obligation to drink Guinness and Whiskey than get au fait with some literature.

Sure, it can be a great lark to don some light-up shamrock earrings and drink your own weight in alcohol – but it’s also a fine idea to explore some of the country’s greatest books, both from the literary titans who shaped the modern novel, to those writing today (and all those in between).

If you’re feeling lucky this St Patrick’s Day, why not check out some of these crackin’ Irish books below:

1. Reading in the dark, by Seamus Deane

Reading in the darkIn strikingly lucid language and scenes fired by a spare, aching passion, Reading in the Dark combines the intimacy of a memoir with the suspense of a detective story. Seamus Deane’s poetic inclinations shine through in his debut novel, perfectly illuminating a coming-of-age story of an unnamed narrator in Northern Ireland. Deane captures the underlying, subconscious fears present throughout the course of the ‘troubles’ – where people live as “if they might explode any minute” and can be “disappeared”. Yet this is a pervading background to an essentially familial story, which contemplates love, religion, innocence, love and truth. And while answers to the novels questions come in bits and pieces, by the turn of the last page readers lives have been illuminated, washed in an elegant, graceful and forgiving prose.

2. Dubliners, by James Joyce

dubliners.jpgFrom (arguably) the king of the modernist movement, James Joyce’s Dubliners plants the reader in the heart of – you guessed it – Dublin. This collection of short stories explores everything from sexual awakening to loss in an attempt to depict the paralysis of the city he loves.

Rejecting euphemism, Joyce’s prose reveals the Irish in their unromantic reality – with fifteen stories offering glimpses into the lives of ordinary Dubliners.

Ultimately, Joyce’s genius is proving to all readers that Dublin is so much more than a tour of the Guinness factory (even if it is Paddy’s Day).

3. A Girl is a half-formed thing, by Eimear McBride

half formed thing.jpg“Definitely a genius” according to Irish writer Anne Enright, Eimear McBride transports you directly into her narrator’s mind and heart, making this experimental, award-winning novel totally unforgettable. A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing tells a sensitive and brutal story about the relationship between a young girl and her brother, as they navigate experiences of sexual violence, family crisis, and mental and physical illness.

In edgy, hazy, stream-of-consciousness prose, McBride introduces us to a host of well-drawn characters that appear taken directly from the streets and fields of Ireland – ranting, Catholic mothers, difficult brothers and a pervy uncles.

4. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

gullivers-travelsIn this epic fantasy yarn of a shipwrecked traveller, Swift directs a satirical fury against almost every aspect of early 18th-century life: science, society, commerce and politics. Second, stripped of Swift’s dark vision, it becomes a wonderful travel fantasy for children, a perennial favourite that continues to inspire countless versions, in books and films. Finally, as a polemical tour de force, full of wild imagination, it became a source for Voltaire, as well as the inspiration for a Telemann violin suite, Philip K Dick’s science-fiction story The Prize Ship, and, perhaps most influential of all, George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

5. Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin

brooklyn.jpgA beautiful coming-of-age tale set in the hard years following World War Two. When an Irish priest from Brooklyn offers to sponsor Eilis Lacey in America, she decides she must go, leaving her fragile mother and her charismatic sister behind. Eilis finds work in a department store on Fulton Street, and when she least expects it, finds love. Tony, who loves the Dodgers and his big Italian family, slowly wins her over with patient charm. But just as Eilis begins to establish her life in Brooklyn, devastating news from Ireland brings her back to Enniscorthy. Eilis is forced to choose between America and Ireland–and two men who embody these places–in the midst of the sweeping economic and social changes of the 1950s.

6. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, by Laurence Sterne

tristram.jpgAnother classic of Irish literature, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy ,Gentleman is a meandering satire of the life of antihero Tristram Shandy — a Don Quixote-type character who finds himself in one amusingly dire straight after another, and who somehow cannot seem to finish a story once he’s started telling it. The result is a kaleidoscope of storytelling, digressions, and characters as vividly imagined as those in any great fairy tale.

 

 

7. Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett

godot.jpgOkay, so this is technically a play rather than a book – but you can still buy it in a book form, so it still counts!

Two homeless old men wait in a bare road with a single tree. They are in no particular time or place – nowhere and everywhere. Over two days they argue, get bored, clown around, repeat themselves, contemplate suicide, and wait. They’re waiting for the one who will never come. They’re waiting for Godot.

Vivian Mercier wrote in the Irish Times in 1956 that Samuel Beckett had “written a play in which nothing happens, twice”. This is still happening today – and it happens every time you pick up the book/play and read it, or go to watch it performed.

Beckett’s genius lay in creating a work that, more than half a century on, still speaks to audiences, particularly in troubled times (and boy, do we have enough of those today).

A perfect way to spend your St Patrick’s Day afternoon while you’re waiting for your friend to come back from the pub.

8. Young Skins by Colin Barrett

young skins.jpgAn exquisite portrait of post-millennium small-town Irish life – this short story collection features largely rudderless, misfiring young men as the principle protagonists, alongside young women cut adrift by society or circumstance.

Communities muddle through. Longings go unexpressed – and sometimes a fierce and jolting awareness flares up like wildfire on a damp rock on the edge of the north Atlantic.

 

 

9. The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien

TheCountryGirls.jpgBanned when it was published and burnt by the natives of O’Brien’s village (a question – how did they get enough copies to build a bonfire of books if it was banned?), The Country Girls has a purity to it that is only matched by how compelling it is to read. Simple in the extreme, it tells the story of Kate and Baba who have made it to Dublin from the deep and damp parish countryside and find that, in all the excitement, hypocrisy remains a constant. With Irish women on both sides of the border still struggling to fight for their rights, this remains an important book everyone should read regardless of what day it is.

10. The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story

granta.jpgA bit of a cheap win this one, as it holds within its pages some of the finest Irish writing from some of the greatest Irish writers of the last century. Lyrical, dark, comic and iconoclastic, the short stories encompass both the richness and the innate contradictions and challenges of Irish life.

 

Not the Booker Prize: An alternative literary reading list

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Photograph: George Monbiot/Guardian

Mired in controversy since it began, the Man Booker Prize has long held the attention of the literary world. In its time, the Prize has witnessed what is as close to an authorial punch up as can be – when William Golding squared off against Anthony Burgess. It was once described by Richard Gott as “a significant and dangerous iceberg in the sea of British culture that serves as a symbol of its current malaise.” And has faced accusations of its listed books being both “too high brow” and “too readable.”

Yet irrespective of the claims against it, the prize has endured. And, as the shortlist has now been announced, we here at Nothing in the Rulebook thought it would not be out of place to suggest an alternative literary list for our fine readers to contemplate.

Supposedly, the Booker Prize aims to recognise the best British or Commonwealth authors. Yet here there undeniably seems to have been some bias toward the English. Despite a population of just 2.5% of the commonwealth, over half the winners of the prize have hailed from England’s shores. And, while there have been notable winners from former colonies, including the South African novelist J M Coetzee, it should not escape our attention that an overwhelming number of Booker judges are middle class English people, who are perhaps likely to prefer their own nation’s literature.

With this in mind, we will therefore endeavour to correct this imbalance in our own shortlist. While we have no funds to actually offer the authors on this list any prize money, we can offer a potent cocktail of hopes, dreams and admiration – and that’s probably just as good.

The list in full:

Reading in the Dark – Seamus Deane

Reading in the darkIn strikingly lucid language and scenes fired by a spare, aching passion, Reading in the Dark combines the intimacy of a memoir with the suspense of a detective story. Seamus Deane’s poetic inclinations shine through in his debut novel, perfectly illuminating a coming-of-age story of an unnamed narrator in Northern Ireland. Deane captures the underlying, subconscious fears present throughout the course of the ‘troubles’ – where people live as “if they might explode any minute” and can be “disappeared”. Yet this is a pervading background to an essentially familial story, which contemplates love, religion, innocence, love and truth. And while answers to the novels questions come in bits and pieces, by the turn of the last page readers lives have been illuminated, washed in an elegant, graceful and forgiving prose.

Trainspotting – Irvine Welsh

trainspottingConsidering two Man Booker Prize judges successfully pulled Welsh’s Trainspotting from the 1993 prize shortlist by threatening to walk out, it seemed especially apt that we list the novel here. For readers who do not come from lowland Scotland, one of the particular pleasures of this book is becoming totally immersed in the language and dialect of the novel’s characters. Ostensibly the plot follows a group of Edinburgh heroin addicts, and through its rawness, Welsh draws the reader into a world of urban depravity, Aids, drugs, and individualism – the latter an ironic homage to Thatcher’s neoliberalism, where we see in action what it’s like to live in a world where “there’s no such thing as society”.

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

margaret_atwood_the_handmaids_taleCanadian author Margaret Atwood’s dystopian classic tells the chilling tale of a concubine in an oppressive future America. Almost 30 years since it was first published, the book is perhaps more vital than ever. Atwood’s lyrical prose is the vehicle used to transport readers to a world where facts appear to merge into one another, and history appears immaterial. This is a fiercely political novel and, while bleak, remains both witty and wise. Arguments continue as to whether this can be classified as a work of science fiction, yet to get caught up in such debates ignores the unarguable fact that this is a truly brilliant novel by an excellent author.

Blindsight – Maurice Gee

BlindsightWidely acclaimed when first published, New Zealand author Maurice Gee’s Blindsight offers readers a complex but knowing portrait of siblings who were once close but are now completely estranged as adults. As the novel evolves, Gee brilliantly draws readers into the past histories of his main protagonists slowly revealing the hidden reasons Allice Ferry and her brother Gordon now live such divergent lives. Deserves to be regarded as one of the best novels published in New Zealand in the past couple of decades.

Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe

thingfallapartPublished first in 1958 – the time Britain, France and Belgium finally began to recognise the failure of colonialism and begin their unseemly withdrawal – Chinua Achebe’s debut novel concerns itself with the events surrounding the start of this disastrous chapter in African history. Setting the book in the late 19th Century – at the height of the “Scramble” for African territories by European powers – Achebe tells the story of Okonkwo, a proud and highly respected member of the Igbo clan. Through his eyes, we witness a village that has not changed substantially in generations become utterly transformed upon the arrival of the English. Yet it is the Bible – not the gun – that becomes the most violent weapon of choice by these “clever” white men. Set to remain on of the great novels of the colonial era, and the book that announced Achebe to the world as a most brilliant writer, it would be a disservice not to include this masterpiece on our humble list.

Sheepshagger – Niall Griffiths

SheepshaggerDespite being born in Liverpool, Niall Griffiths’ strong familial ties to Wales earned the dubious honorific “the Welsh Irvine Welsh” for the stunning vernacular monologues in his books ‘Grits’ and ‘Sheepshagger’. Though there are linguistic and political similarities, it’s a disservice to think of Griffiths’ book as an imitation of ‘Trainspotting’. Here we follow anti-hero Ianto – a near mute “inbred” savant with a mystical connection to nature, who divides his time between roaming the mountains of his childhood and accepting whatever drug or drink is offered by his circle of friends. As the novel progresses, we witness near Bacchanalian horrors, a distorted but nonetheless sublime depiction of the natural world, and Ianto’s ultimate downfall. It’s vivid and compelling, a modern sensibility informed by Greek tragedy and the Blakean sublime.

Not just an ordinary reading list

So, there we have it. A finer shortlist of novels than you’re otherwise likely to find today. We may not have the excitement of guessing which of these great books will emerge the ultimate, victorious winner, but perhaps that doesn’t matter. After all, in a way, we’re all winners here. Because we’re the ones who get to go out and read these books and enjoy doing so, without ever having to carry out the agonising process of actually writing the damn things. Some might say such thinking is a bit of a luvvie-duvvie cop out; but nobody wants to treat writing like a competition, right?