Hey Ma, it’s the Doggie Man

This week there’s a powerful re-imagining of a true-life murder case set in a brutal 17th-century Scotland. There’s a novel set in the south of France about a blended family spending their first summer together without the watchful eyes of parents, when something strange happens.

There’s a celebration of dogs from a man who knows a lot about them. And there’s an anthology of short stories from one of our most respected writers, exploring themes of both human and animal suffering.

The Maiden, Kate Foster, Mantle,€14

This novel is based on the true story of Lady Christian Nimmo, who was executed in Edinburgh in 1679, having been found guilty of the murder of her lover and uncle by marriage, Lord James Forrester. The angle of this story is told from that of post-#MeToo movement, despite the 17th century setting and it’s a convincing and damning feminist text, remaining true to its time and true also to society’s expectations of women at the time. A woman was required to be as pure as the driven snow and anything less than a vestal virgin was considered to be a whore and a shameless jezebel.

Human behaviour never really changes, and so the historical novelist’s job is to set the emotional turmoils that have dogged us forever into a decisive societal framework, and in that respect Foster has really come up trumps. The reader can smell the fetid streets, hear the jeering crowds, feel almost viscerally the thrust of the mob’s clamour for ‘justice’ in a case where the accused seems to be infinitely more wronged than guilty. It’s already won the Bloody Scotland Debut Prize 2023 and is longlisted for The Women’s Prize for Fiction 2024. An utterly immersive read.

We Are Together Because, Kerry Andrew, Atlantic, €23.99

This is a strange but compelling story from an author who has already made their mark in the classical and experimental music scene as a composer in London. Two sets of teenage half-siblings, two brothers and two sisters, are thrown together in an old villa in the south of France for a week, before their jetsetting father is destined to join them all on the following week. As well as coming-of-age story for all involved, it’s also a developing story about the members in this fractured family getting to know one another properly. The father has orchestrated the holiday, hoping somehow to make a whole out of two unfamiliar halves. And the lazy days are described beautifully by an author who hasn’t forgotten what it’s like to be a teenager.

Through the first half of the book, young Connor, who can only hear with one ear, is hearing a persistent drone in the background but the others can’t hear it. Then Violet, another teenager, insists she’s seen an airplane falling in the far distance. And the others haven’t seen that. Here the story changes, morphing from a coming-of-age novel to a coming-to-the-end-of-the-world novel. We veer full throttle away from hazy Provençal afternoons, careening into apocalyptic survival mode. What saves the novel, with its strange twist, is the quality of Andrew’s prose. It is simply luminescent. But I found this story of two halves a challenging read.

Hey Ma, it’s the Doggie Man, Barry McDonough, Choice Publishing, €16.99

This is a book for dog lovers, as ‘Doggie Man’ tells the story of how he ended up in his current position, collecting dogs in need of a groom from their owners and delivering them back home again later, all primped and preened and looking gorgeous. After spending 30 years on his father’s farm in Bettystown, the author made a massive break for the border, ending up in the sprawling metropolis of… Ashbourne. He writes: “It was 2007, there was a recession, we had no money and no jobs – not the best year to start a business but from the beginning we thrived.” And so did the dogs, by all accounts.

What follows is a collection of anecdotes, not just about the dogs he and his partner have taken care of over the years, but of their owners too. Some stories are funny, some are moving, all of them would appeal to those of us who wouldn’t be without our waggly-tailed BFFs.

Barcelona, Mary Costello, Canongate, €14.99

Animals feature again in this very different book, but their fates are not so sweet. A new Costello anthology, the second from this magnificent writer, is a special occasion. And her lens has sharpened, refined itself minutely as she surgically excavates the minutiae of our lives, the fleeting moments, the almost-glances, the unspoken word that catches in our throats and threatens to blow us up altogether. Few contemporary writers can capture the vagaries and perils of the interior life like Costello can. As different as the stories are, there’s a haunting leitmotif: man’s inhumanity towards his fellow creatures, or as one of her characters puts it in a story titled At the Gate; “Whatever I suffer, I can trace to a single cause: the doomed lives of animals.”

A story where the protagonist rescues the dog next door is so understated, so very non-glorious, that rather than punch the air in exaltation, the reader is left wanting to weep with relief. But it’s not just about animals. The humans here are also doomed. In the title story, one single gesture, or rather its absence, is enough to inform the protagonist that her marriage is destroyed. And that’s another leitmotif; loss. The losses here are rarely dramatic, never spectacular, but rather like slow, painful haemorrhages, leaching the life out of her characters. I cannot recommend this work of literature highly enough.


It’s early notice but events book out fast for the Cúirt International Festival of Literature in Galway, taking place from April 23 to 28. See full programme on cuirt.ie.

The Stinging Fly has announced its summer workshop programme and it’s been expanded to include beginners, with workshops in person and online and including several more tutors. See stingingfly.org for more information.

There are still lots of writing competitions out there, for short stories, flash fiction and poetry, with closing dates in April and beyond. Check out the writing.ie website and also creativewriting.ie for details.