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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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.