Book review: Beatlebone by Kevin Barry

Kevin Barry’s lyrical tale of an imagined John Lennon trip to the West Coast of Ireland hits all the right notes.

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Beatlebone by Kevn Barry, published by Doubleday Books

In 1967, in a bid to escape Beatlemania and find his own shangri-la, John Lennon bought an island off the west coast of Ireland. Dorinish Island – nickednamed Beatle Island – is one of hundreds (legend says 365, but there’s a little Irish story-telling in that myth) of islands overlooking Clew Bay that are actually hills flooded by the raging Atlantic that have formed an archipelago of uninhabited, weather beaten sanctuaries for birds – and the occasional Beatle.

Lennon only visited his island once, but in Kevin Barry’s wonderfully imaginative tale, the Beatle slipped in a second visit in 1978. This was a time in Lennon’s life when he was deep in dough and diapers, forsaking creativity for domestic bliss. But the former Beatle’s happiness was costly him artistically. In Barry’s story, his visit to this wind-battered, bird-shat on part of the world was an attempt to unlock his past and unleash his musical demons once again.

Lennon doesn’t find a great deal of musical inspiration on his journey, but he does meet Cornelius O’Grady and a dog called Brian Wilson. Cornelius’ unlikely relationship with Lennon – he becomes his chauffeur, his fixer, his enabler – forms the centrepiece of the novel. There are some wonderful moments between the two of them, my favourite, which I read three times in a row, was John trying to get Cornelius to unravel the meaning behind Kate Bush’s ‘wiley moor’ in Wuthering Heights as he crudely mimics her vocals.

The novel’s plot is thin – Lennon’s quest to get to the island is really a springboard to life’s greater issues – death, love, the past, family. Barry’s Lennon is haunted by his childhood and his absent father and dead mother. Despite his success and present happiness, he still feels the gaping hole of the abandoned child.

Barry captures Lennon’s acerbic wit, his brooding bitterness and eye for the absurd. You can hear his Liverpudlian drawl in the lyrical beat of Barry’s dialogue. The novel has elements of magical realism, at times it’s a trippy stream of consciousness, like a literary I Am The Walrus. In one chapter about half way through the novel, Barry breaks through the novel’s fourth wall and writes about why he choose to tell this story, detailing the research he carried out to follow in Lennon’s footsteps. It should be jarring, but it only fuels the story and adds another interesting stylistic element to a novel not afraid to stray off the narrative path.

Beatlebone is a warm, funny, charming novel that’s thick with insight and humour. Barry captures voices and dialogue with a poet’s ear, from Lennon’s old-fashioned Scouse to the music of Cornelius’ ramblings. You can taste the salty tang of the Atlantic and feel Lennon’s tension as he hunts desperately for his piece of privacy followed by the press, doused with whiskey and side-tracked by primal scream advocates (of the therapy, not Bobby Gillespie’s bunch).

Beatlebone is a joy, an exhilarating, fantastical, witty tale fused by Barry’s wild literary imagination and intoxicating lyrical language. 

Book review: The Green Road by Anne Enright

This tale of a family reunion seething with resentment and disappointment may not hit the heights of Enright’s finest, but is still a literary joy

The Green Road by Anne Enright (Jonathan Cape)

The Green Road by Anne Enright (Jonathan Cape)

Anne Enright excels at the sort of novel where everyone hates each other, but who are all ultimately bound by a shared history, communal self-loathing and, even, love.

Enright’s novels are usually set within the raging heart of a family where the protagonists seethe silently – and sometimes not so silently – with unresolved jealousy, unspoken traumas and petty feuds. I love her novels, seeped as they are with disappointment and unfulfilled dreams. Real life in other words, but told so much more eloquently than our own; in Enright’s novels, the everyday is elevated to art.

As in all the best novels, little happens in The Green Road. Like other Enright books it’s character led, although the plot is always on the cusp of kicking off, that simmering resentment within the nuclear family threatening to explode. The Green Road, in Enright tradition, doesn’t follow a neat narrative cliche; when you think you know what’s going to happen, Enright changes down a gear and the result is far less dramatic – and yet somehow more dramatic – than you think it’s going to be.

Everyday life and its blandness is reflected back at us with Enright’s illuminating prose. In The Green Road, the spotlight falls on the Madigan family. There’s Constance, overweight, kind, put-upon; the youngest (and the prettiest) Hanna who finds solace for her shattered dreams in a sherry bottle while second son Emmet tries to heal real wounds in the developing world, but can’t mend his. (I wasn’t convinced by Dan, the gay oldest son who runs off to the New World, he seemed a bit uneven, a little lightweight).

Their backstories lead us to a reunion at the family house in County Clare in 2005, herded back home by their infuriating, magnetic mother, Rosaleen. Her character is established at the beginning of the novel, set a couple of decades before the ill-fated Christmas reunion, when she takes to her bed after Dan tells her he’s going to become a priest (mothers in literature Who Take To Their Beds is one of those Things That Happens In Novels, like it always being a hot summer). Rosaleen is a childlike, snidey woman who her children are desperate to run away from (New York, the developing world, the bottom of a bottle, biscuits) but are so shaped by her that they can never truly escape.

Despite great acclaim (including another Man Booker Prize nod) The Green Road fell a little flatter than her previous novels, the wonderful The Gathering and the equally startling The Forgotten Waltz (her selection of short stories, Yesterday’s Weather, is also excellent), it never quite pulled me into its snare in the way her other books have. But with Enright’s writing as its star, it’s still a novel that is as lush and stimulating as the Irish countryside.

Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: The Weir, Wyndham’s Theatre

The Weir, Wyndham's Theatre

The Weir, Wyndham’s Theatre

The Weir is one of those plays that’s about nothing and everything. It’s a gentle, funny play for the most part, with a plot that revolves around five people getting pissed in a down-at-heel pub in an unnamed, remote part of Ireland, livening their whiskey soaked evening with ghost stories.

But Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s script delves into the human heart and extracts a play that’s moving, funny and tender. Billed as a ghost story, The Weir isn’t a spine tingling scarathon in the vein of Woman in Black; The Weir’s ghosts are far more human.

It’s a wet, blustery night (both, as it happens, inside and outside the theatre) and local bachelors Jack (Brian Cox) and Jim (Ardal O’Hanlon) have taken refuge in their local with barman Brendan in his shabby – in a decidedly un-chic way – pub. They are joined by married regular, the flashy in a small town way Finbar (Risteárd Cooper)  and Veronica (Dervla Kirwan)  a young woman who’s recently moved from Dublin to this part of the world searching for a bit of peace.

She doesn’t get much on this particular night as the four men, in a bid to impress the attractive blow-in, start narrating their personal ghost stories with verbocious Jack as the eloquent ringleader.  But amongst these stories of ghouls and spirits, the most haunting tale of them all is all too real.

The Weir is engaging and funny and filled with sadness and regrets that overflow like Valerie’s pint of wine. The cast are all fantastic; Brian Cox’s Jack shifts effortlessly from Guinness-fuelled show-off to reveal a man scarred by heartbreak and regret. Dervla Kirwan is quietly and then devastatingly brilliant as the lone woman with a past so shatteringly sad that the men – and the audience, or this audience member at least – are stopped in their tracks.

The Weir may not spook you, but it will haunt you in other – more affecting – ways.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: The Forgotten Waltz, Anne Enright

ImageAnne Enright is a novelist of such skill she can turn the mundane, everyday domestic into something sad, powerful and beautiful.

The Forgotten Waltz follows the aftermath of an affair, told through the eyes of Gina Moynihan, an unremarkable thirty-something Dubliner who works as something in marketing.

In essence, it’s a simple story. Infidelity is a well-worn subject, but in Enright’s hands it becomes a dramatic, fascinating study of human fragility, greed, desire and love, in all its forms.

The story begins at the end. We find Gina waiting in her mum’s draughty former house to pick up her lover’s 12-year-old daughter from the bus stop. As the snow falls, she contemplates the path her life has taken – how did she find herself waiting for a man she barely knew a year ago’s child? Gina’s thoughts then drift to her first encounter with Seán Vallely a simple glance that couldn’t have foretold what was to come. It’s not love at first sight, nor the passionate Darcy-Elizabeth hate, he was simply, “The stranger I sleep besides now”.

The love affair between Gina and the man she eventually leaves her husband for isn’t the passionate, but doomed tale of Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina. It’s unsexy snatched encounters in bland airport hotel rooms, drunken fumbles at work conventions, all the while accompanied, not by a beating heart, but with a gnawing sadness, waves of guilt and a nagging feeling that the new life she’s started is as static, as undramatic, as her old one.

In a world where we’re still encouraged to believe that we will one day meet our soul mate’s eyes across a crowded room and live happily ever after, Enright writes about love, or perhaps more accurately, relationships, with a delft and accurate hand. There are no thunderbolts; Gina soon realises the man she’s left and the man she now lives with are interchangeable – even if one is better at housework.

The characters are all so wonderfully drawn. We’re never told what they’re explicitly like, but the picture Enright builds allows us to get to know them better than a thousand adjectives would. Gina is so whole and human I felt like I knew her; she’s flawed – often stupid, sometimes kind, envious, scornful of her sister’s Sunday supplement lifestyle, overly concerned with appearances and short on self-awareness.

Enright is a truly captivating writer, with a wonderful knack of saying something perfectly that I’ve only been able to half articulate before. From the description of her ‘pretty girl’ sister, to Gina’s, almost unconscious, musings on the love of her life, tinged as it is, with uneasiness.

There’s no resolution, Gina isn’t condemned and shunned for being a “fallen woman”, she’s just consigned to the ordinary life of a suburban Dubliner with a past and a future she has yet to reconcile. If only life could be as beautiful as Enright’s writing.

Suzanne Elliott