Detail from the front cover of Lessons, by Ian McEwan (full image below).

Lessons is an 'absolute triumph'

This week there are four very different novels, one which has been out for some time, the others all recent. They include a translation from the original Italian, a revenge novel set in Dublin and Philadelphia and a kind of ‘road trip’ novel that begins in Dublin and ends in Wales.

Lessons, Ian McEwan, Jonathan Cape, €11.99

McEwan is one of my personal holy trinity of contemporary novelists, the other two being Barnes and Banville. Lessons, published in paperback last summer, takes the reader through the life of Roland Baines, a baby boomer and army brat, sent from his father’s military camp in Libya to boarding school in England, and scarred for life by his piano teacher’s “love” for him at the tender age of 14. This ‘affair’ destroys his chance of further education. Later, his wife deserting him and their seven-month-old son will rob him of any chance of professional and personal freedom. He scrapes by as a freelance journalist and cocktail bar pianist, but only just.

McEwan uses the historical backdrop of Roland’s quiet life to create not so much a state-of-the-nation novel as a state-of-the-world one, and it’s an absolute triumph. There’s the misery of Thatcher, the subsequent hopes around New Labour, the shock of Blair rowing in with warlord George Dubbya and the international community sinking into Hades ever after. In the Irish Times, Kevin Power, a writer I admire, ventured that McEwan is probably deemed “too old, too white, too straight, too middle-class…’ I must admit to admiring Mr Power a little less these days…

Verdigris, Michele Mari And Other Stories, €20.99

Translated beautifully by Brian Robert Moore, this is the story of the summer of 1969, when young Michelino, aged 13, was sent to stay in his grandparents’ rambling home in rural Italy for the school holiday. He forges a friendship with the old gardener, Felice, and quickly realises that Felice is losing his memory. To help him, Michelino dreams up some basic (along with some very convoluted) mnemonic systems. And they work, up to a point. As the days pass Michelino becomes fascinated with this gardener. How did he end up on the old estate? He was there before Michelino’s grandparents bought the place, and what about his childhood? Felice is a frustrating, and often funny, guinea pig for Michelino’s memory experiments. The unravelling of Felice’s life story, however, will prove shocking, and it includes bodies buried on the grounds, three skeletons in Nazi uniforms hidden in an outhouse, dusty old wine bottles full of blood in the cellar and the persistence of a plague of red slugs who eat everything, no matter how often Felice sprays the crops with verdigris.

This is an old-fashioned Gothic novel, with more literary and philosophical allusions than you can count. It’s also a potted history of Italy for the first half of the 20th century and a vivid description of the horrors of Fascism and World War II. In the current political climate, it’s a cautionary tale. But then those who currently feed the dangerous far-right wouldn’t know a book from a slug.

Breakdown, Cathy Sweeney, W&N, €14.99

An ordinary, middle-class, middle-aged mother rises to meet the day on a dark November morning. She dresses quickly, leaves the house, gets into her car and just keeps going. All the way to Wexford, stopping a while in Arklow, the town she grew up in, on the way. She observes the town’s slow decline, proceeds to Rosslare, parks her car, buys a ferry ticket as a foot passenger, and eventually finds herself in Wales. Why? She has two grown children, one in college and one finishing secondary school, a financially successful husband and she earns a respectable living herself as a secondary school teacher, living in leafy south Dublin. There are no visible signs of trouble. But there’s plenty of trouble in the anonymous protagonist’s head and I figure every middle-aged mother can identify completely with her.

She’s simply tired of it all. Tired of working daily and afterwards facing the dinner, the cleaning, the laundry, the cat, the constant demands of her family. She’s tired of the relentless roleplay, exhausted by stifling her own ambitions to be an artist by the choices she made to be wife and mother, while her husband suffered no such sacrifices. It’s not just her own ‘breakdown’ we witness here. Sweeney cleverly points us, through this woman’s thought processes, to climate breakdown, societal breakdown, the breakdown of the civilised world. It’s potent stuff, wrapped up in precise, sparse, obdurate prose and if it doesn’t make you think, you should check yourself for a pulse. And maybe move to Stepford. It’s a marvellous novel.

The Favourite, Rosemary Hennigan, Orion, €16.99

I had read Hennigan’s fine debut, The Truth Will Out and so was looking forward to reading this, her second novel. But maybe it’s just me; I’m finding campus novels, and indeed revenge novels, a bit tiresome and a bit ‘samey’. In this story, younger sister Jessica plans revenge on a law professor with whom her older sister, Audrey, had a relationship when she was a student in Trinity. From Audrey’s journal, Jessica learns that Jay Crane, the unscrupulous professor, had sexually assaulted her sister. Afterwards, Audrey left college, went travelling in South America and was killed in a road accident. Jessica manages to garner a place on Crane’s postgrad law course in his native Philadelphia and plots his downfall, against the backdrop of the election that put Trump in Washington.

There is much debate here about law versus justice and the author certainly showcases her knowledge (she’s a lawyer by trade), but this novel simply didn’t grip me in the way that Kate Elizabeth Russell’s My Dark Vanessa did. Russell’s work was more visceral, more intense and held more emotional weight. That said, I’m sure this book will do well, probably with a much younger audience than yours truly.


St Brigid’s bank holiday is this weekend. Check out your local what’s on listings – there’s plenty happening – or you could join in the many festivities in Kildare at the Brigid 1500 Festival. See for listings and details.

A quieter, more contemplative choice for Brigid’s weekend would be to simply visit her shrine and well in Faughart, County Louth. Alternatively, check out the events in the Solas Bhríde Centre in Kildare, see for details.