It’s some time since I wrote a book review. I’ve recently read several books that I’ve meant to write about, yet somehow events have overtaken me. But this book is so brilliant that I don’t want to try to offer excuses!
Set in the Belfast Troubles, The Good Son tells the story of Mickey Donnelly’s last summer holiday before he goes to ‘Big School’. McVeigh cleverly captures the texture of the Ardoyne by presenting the tale entirely through Mickey’s eyes, but in such a way that the reader gets glimpses of the sinister adult world that exists in a kind of parallel universe to the squabbles, make-believe and silly but cruel playground fights that are lived with such intensity by the children of the neighbourhood. Mickey’s narrative is at once extremely funny and full of pathos. He tries to be brave and to help his mother and little sister and is often wise beyond his years, but the ten-year-old that he is reasserts himself when he least expects it, often at the most inconvenient moments.
McVeigh’s portrayal of a poor Irish Catholic family is a modern take on the classic Irish story. It belongs to a literary tradition that includes the work of James Joyce, Sean O’Casey and Frank O’Connor, yet McVeigh speaks with a strikingly original voice of his own. Mickey’s Mam isn’t Stephen Dedalus’s sainted martyr of a mother or Sean O’ Casey’s dignified but tragic Juno, though her character shares elements displayed by both, but she’s also a boisterous daughter of the slums, not above slapping her small son ‘because she feels like it’ or giving him a good tongue-lashing, yet also full of love and care for all her four children, including Mickey’s detestable elder brother Paddy. She even shows some kind of residue of affection for the ne’er-do-well husband and father who flits in and out of their lives, a masterful depiction of the classic Irish drunkard. She holds down several dead-end jobs that just about provide her family with subsistence, but she doesn’t feel sorry for herself. Secretly, she is also helping the paramilitaries, though whether she is being coerced into this is never quite clear.
Above all, it is the dialogue in this novel that holds the reader spellbound. McVeigh manages to convey the lilt and dynamic cut-and-thrust of the Belfast dialect without overdoing it with too much local fussiness (his judicious repetitive deployment of a handful of words, such as ‘scundered’ and ‘lumber’ is extremely effective). Also brilliant is his use of nicknames to show the child’s universe that Mickey inhabits: Ma’s-a-Whore, Measles, Fartin’ Martin, Glue Boy and Glue Girl, Wee Maggie. Mickey’s world is fragmented, a large dollop of drab reality mixed with small sips from the many forms of popular culture that he drinks in indiscriminately to nourish his imagination: Doris Day, John Wayne, Darth Vader and Yogi Bear all make unexpected appearances in The Good Son.
I can’t write any more without giving too much away. I’ve read The Good Son during the course of this weekend. I can’t claim to have completed it at one sitting, but I did resent every moment that I had to put it down to get on with the more mundane realities of my existence. ‘You must read it’ is what I really want to say!
The magazine that accompanied Saturday’s edition of The Times was full of lists. Each of the regular journalists contributed an article based on them, presumably to show solidarity with a population that is currently either toiling away at compiling Christmas lists or trudging through the streets to fulfil them as December sets in and we realise – indeed are perpetually being reminded by the media – that there are only x shopping days left. To be honest, the result is a bit contrived, though some of the lists – especially Caitlin Moran’s – are great fun. That said, I’ve long had a fascination with lists myself. Consciously, it dates back to my student days, when I remember that my tutor drew attention to James Joyce’s magnificent series of lists in Ulysses. “They may look effortless or random,” he told us, in his mildly admonishing way, “but just try writing lists to equal them yourself. You’ll find out then that only a genius can produce lists like Joyce’s.”
Whatever the truth of this, some of Joyce’s lists are indeed difficult to surpass. One of my favourites is the list that begins as a pastiche of a passage from the King James Bible and reaches its climax with the following description of Leopold Bloom, fleeing through the streets of Dublin from a hostile reception:
“And they beheld Him even Him, ben Bloom Elijah, amid clouds of angels ascend to the glory of the brightness at an angle of fortyfive degrees over Donohoe’s in Little Green Street like a shot off a shovel.”
Lists were a part of my life long before I read that, of course. I belonged to a generation whose mothers sent us up to the corner shop at a very tender age, a note tucked into a purse that also contained exactly the right money to pay for the items listed. And, as well as shopping lists and Christmas lists, there were birthday lists, lists of people you wanted to come to your party (always more than you were allowed to invite), lists of books you wanted from the library and, on a more mundane note, the elaborate lists of ‘essential’ clothes and equipment that were part of the rite of passage of first attending a grammar school. Later, as my friends and I married, there were wedding lists – a phenomenon to which I’ve never been able to reconcile myself. The French go in for them in an even bigger way than we do: the poshest linen and china shops in France all carry ‘listes de mariages’ signs in the windows. But I’ve always thought that wedding lists are too specific, and therefore slightly off-colour, not to say mercenary. For example, it may be fine to tell your future wedding guests that you would like tea-cups, but it surprises me that accepted etiquette also allows you to specify ‘Wedgwood Daisy Tea Story’, or some such. It’s like smiling at someone while you’re simultaneously twisting her arm halfway up her back: ‘You will buy me this china, each set of six cups and saucers costing an eye-watering £240, because I have invited you to my wedding.’
Nevertheless, lists, both your own and other people’s, are mesmerising, and since I’m sure The Times has not devoted a whole magazine to them on a whim, I’m clearly not alone in thinking so. I’m not sure why this should be. Perhaps it’s because a list combines comprehensiveness with brevity. An eclectic list also allows the reader a tantalising, if puzzling, glimpse of its author’s mind:
“The time has come,” the Walrus said, “To talk of many things: Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax– Of cabbages–and kings– And why the sea is boiling hot– And whether pigs have wings.”
Lists can be sinister as well as humorous; they can help you to cope with everyday irritations; they can soothe by striking a common chord with the rest of humanity:
“I’ve got a little list–I’ve got a little list
Of society offenders who might well be underground,
And who never would be missed–who never would be missed!
There’s the pestilential nuisances who write for autographs–
All people who have flabby hands and irritating laughs–
All children who are up in dates, and floor you with ’em flat–
All persons who in shaking hands, shake hands with you like _that_–
And all third persons who on spoiling tête-a-têtes insist–
They’d none of ’em be missed–they’d none of ’em be missed!”
And despite what my tutor averred, I think that compiling a list is an excellent way of achieving literary distinction without having to try too hard. It allows its author to give free rein to his or her imagination without having to take on the full responsibility of plot, characterisation or format. In order to create a list all you need to do is, as the saying goes, empty your head on to the paper. Though, with even half an eye on prosperity, you’re likely to want to tweak your list a little before you show it to anyone else.
I’m going to indulge myself by concluding with a bit of a digression. It’s about the word ‘list’ itself. It’s one of those words that has multiple meanings. Thus boats list when they’re sinking. Knights jousted in the lists. And ‘list’ was an archaic word for ‘please’. I love words like this! And since today’s has been a post full of quotations, I’ve chosen a suitably gnomic one that uses a different meaning for list, to conclude:
“Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. Nicodemus answered and said unto him, ‘How can these things be?’”.
Happy Christmas shopping! Don’t forget your list – you might not survive Christmas without it! 😉
On my travels in other countries, some of the most evocative moments have been spent contemplating rivers. I’ve stood on O’Connell Bridge in Dublin and watched the (on that occasion very murky) waters of the Liffey and remember thinking, as I looked into its Guinness-coloured depths, that it must have been entirely James Joyce’s poetic imagination that produced such a beautiful name as Anna Livia Plurabelle. I’ve seen dhows swooping along the Nile, their single white sails bending gracefully to the breeze. I’ve marvelled at the massive businesslike barges speeding along the Danube, powerful and swift as crocodiles on the move. The bridges and embankments of the Seine are still vividly precious for their romance on our honeymoon. Closer to home, as I’ve written in a previous post, I’ve admired the spectacular night-time views from Waterloo Bridge in London as the Thames makes its sudden sweep to the East. And I still feel great affection for the dear, dirty River Welland that threads its way through the town of Spalding, much humbler than these great waterways, though still, in its day, a significant bringer of prosperity to the people who dwelt nearby, just like all the great rivers of the world.
Unsurprising then, that I should have been captivated by the magic of the great Yangtze, the fourth longest river in the world, as it pours itself at Shanghai into the East China Sea. Wide and fast-flowing, the Yangtze has brought traders to Shanghai for thousands of years, making it one of the world’s great cosmopolitan cities long before the rest of China emerged from its self-imposed insularity.
Even the Yangtze’s much smaller tributary, the Huangpu River that cuts right through the city centre, is a majestic waterway, which I visited first on a cold but sunny Sunday afternoon when people were promenading along the Bund, the waterfront area opposite Pudong, on a built-up walkway that enables walkers to get close to the river’s banks and where festive street food stalls abound.
Two days later, on a bitterly frosty but fine, clear evening, I was taken to the Huangpu’s junction with the Yangtze. On both occasions I was able to watch barge after nimble barge (they are longer and slenderer than the ones on the Danube) power by, almost as if in convoy, while the waters displaced by their passage lapped energetically against the shore. The barges and other ships are lit up in the evening, as is the spectacular Shanghai skyline that forms a backdrop to the Yangtze. The result is a profusion of golden lights that disport themselves against the inky blackness of the waters. The scene is dynamic, full of energy and passion, the legacy of very many years of trade, hard-won prosperity, daring, risk and chance and, I’m certain, not a little skulduggery and murder. The effect is by no means cosy, but it is exhilarating! At the back of my mind lurked the half-remembered knowledge that, in years gone by, to be ‘Shanghaied’ meant to be kidnapped and forced to serve as a sailor on board one of the many ships that plied their trade to the East and, ultimately, to Shanghai. I could imagine someone creeping up on a strong young man as he stood, unsuspecting, and rendering him unconscious; imagine his anguish as he awoke, his head sore, far out at sea, unable to tell his family and friends what had befallen him… that he was on his way to China.
Every river has a personality, which I think was James Joyce’s point about the Liffey. The Yangtze’s is particularly complex: on the one hand, it courses past Shanghai, bearing its gift to this great city of enterprise and generations of toleration for many creeds and cultures; on the other, it penetrates deep into a country that until recent times was secret, withdrawn, enclosed and shut away from all outside influence.
All text and photographs on this website © Christina James
I tend not to write down dates of birthdays, wedding anniversaries etc., but I think I’m quite good at remembering them – although I have just had to ask one of my friends the date on which her daughter was born. One date that I never forget each year, however, is a fictional one: Bloomsday. As all James Joyce aficionados will know, it is today, June 16th. It was on this date in 1904 that Leopold Bloom made his day-long perambulations around Dublin and, by describing it in Ulysses, first published in Paris in 1922, Joyce captured the history, customs, beliefs and prejudices, not only of his own country, but of the whole of European culture. His masterstroke was to present it from the viewpoint of the perennial outsider, a modern version of the Wandering Jew. A life in the day, indeed! There was a personal irony in the choice of date, too, as it was on this day that Joyce’s liaison with Nora Barnacle, who was to become his long-suffering common law wife and eventually his legal wife, began.
Picking up my tattered Penguin edition of the book, I resolve to read it again very soon. Because of the range and depth of the literary styles that it covers, and Joyce’s wonderful manipulation of language, it is a complete writer’s handbook in itself. It needs no gloss or laboriously explained sets of rules – although the book can be read at many levels and is amazingly erudite. I don’t usually write in books, but I see that against one passage my younger and more studious self has written ‘Traherne: Centuries of Meditation. 3rd Century’. It’s impossible for anyone else to write like Joyce, but admiring and appreciating his work certainly makes you think about how to use language.
It was Joyce who first taught me the magic of lists. The ones that he creates appear to be off-the-cuff, but I’m sure their sparkling apparent spontaneity cost him many hours of effort. Take this one, for example, which is only a third of one in a series that appears towards the end of the book to sum up Bloom’s condition: Mendicancy: that of the fraudulent bankrupt with negligible assets paying 1s 4d in the £, sandwichman, distributor of throwaways, nocturnal vagrant, insinuating sycophant, maimed sailor, blind stripling, superannuated bailiff’s man, marfeast, lickplate, spoilsport, pickthank, eccentric public laughing stock seated on bench of public park under discarded perforated umbrella. It was through Joyce’s work also that I came to realise the importance of evoking all of the senses, not just the visual: his description of Leopold Bloom’s lunchtime cheese sandwich is a classic still to be surpassed, in my experience. Then there is his satirical juxtaposition of the sacrosanct (and, he indicates, probably humbug) with the absurd: And they beheld Him, even Him, ben Bloom Elijah, amid clouds of angels ascend to the glory of the brightness at an angle of fortyfive degrees over Donohoe’s in Little Green Street like a shot off a shovel. Like avid readers both before and after him, Joyce read everything: cereal packets, handbills, magazines and potboilers as well as more European literature than almost anyone else could cram into a lifetime. Unlike other learned writers, however, he didn’t make judgments about the ‘quality’ of what he read. The Nausicaa episode (Chapter 13 of Ulysses) is not only a brilliant pastiche of the style of writing of women’s magazines of the time, but also reveals Joyce’s sneaking admiration for a genre that could get away with so much hyperbole. Gerty MacDowell, its naïve and rather tragic heroine, is a fine portrait of a dreamy young woman whose head is filled with romantic notions of how she can shape her life. Although she is portrayed only once, in a tiny snapshot of time, Joyce conveys to the reader through this medium of ‘magazinese’ that her life will be much bleaker than she supposes. Today’s ‘filmstar for a day’ brides are her modern equivalents.
It’s difficult to say what I like best about Ulysses, but, if pushed, I’d say that it’s the portrait of Molly Bloom. Hers is a timeless portrait of almost everything that it has meant to be a woman through the ages: she is a sensuous earth mother, fascinating femme fatale, sexy but not a whore, capable of great sympathy but also self-centred, perceptive, ‘genteel’ and coarse. She belongs to a long tradition of female characters that stretches back in time, even beyond Cleopatra, to Homer’s sorceress Scylla. Molly lives through her senses; the one attribute that she doesn’t possess is intelligence of the formal, schooled kind. In this, she is the antithesis of Leopold, who thinks about everything, applies his knowledge to everything, and therefore, like Hamlet, is unable to act. Apparently she was modelled at least in part on Nora Barnacle. Some feminist readers have found her portrayal insulting to women and, mixing life with fiction again for a moment, it’s true that Joyce held some curious views about the female sex. But Molly is above all the great force for the positive in the novel. It is she who has the very last word. It is, simply, Yes.
The book’s title is pronounced YouLISSease, by the way, not YOUlissease. I was taught this by an Irish professor, who said that I could mispronounce it if I liked, but, if so, I’d never get to grips with Finnegans Wake, which is all about pronunciation. I’ve found this to be true. Although still a difficult work, ‘the Wake’ becomes comprehensible if you read it aloud in a Dublin accent.
Joyce eventually stretched language to the point at which all but his most determined supporters find his work too much of an effort to read. He may perhaps have been a genius on the verge of madness. Nevertheless, what he managed to wrest from language changed the course of fiction writing forever. A much more insignificant James salutes the author – and you all – on Bloomsday 2013!
The 25th Hour, by David Benioff, was passed on to me by my son. At the risk of sounding sexist, I didn’t fancy it all that much; from the blurb on the jacket, it struck me as a quintessential boy’s book. It seemed to typify one of those fast-paced American thrillers in which cops and robbers all speak with gravelly voices out of the corners of their mouths, Humphrey Bogart style, and wisecrack with each other while letting their guns do all the serious talking. However, since I think that everyone’s reading should once in a while include something from outside his or her literary comfort zone and that one of this book’s more obvious virtues is that it is very short, I decided to give it a go.
I was very pleasantly surprised. The novel is set in New York and tells the story of the (anti-) hero’s last twenty-four hours of freedom before he has to present himself at Otisville Jail to serve a long sentence for drug-trafficking. His name is Monty. David Benioff succeeds in pulling off the difficult coup of making the reader both sympathise with him and recognise the enormity of his crime. This is achieved in an under-stated way, using just a few sentences, by describing the death from drug abuse of one of Monty’s friends and how it has continued to devastate the addict’s family.
The quality of the writing is superb. New York itself almost becomes a character in the novel. It is described at every hour of the day as Monty visits various haunts within the city and bids farewell to his friends, often in gritty and unconventional ways. Whilst it would perhaps be stretching it to compare it with the Dublin depicted by James Joyce as Leopold Bloom conducts his own twenty-four-hour odyssey, David Benioff clearly knows New York well and portrays it with affectionate precision.
The names that he chooses for his characters are superb. Monty’s friends are called Jakob and Kostya; his Puerto Rican girlfriend has the unforgettable (and ironic) name Naturelle. Jakob, a teacher, has a crush on a seventeen-year-old pupil whose name, Mary d’Annunziato, suggests association with the Blessed Virgin; the girl herself turns out to be a latter-day Lolita from the Bronx.
Finally, there is Doyle, the pit-bull terrier, whom Monty rescued after he had been abandoned at the side of the motorway and nursed back to health. Monty himself loves Doyle because he believes that his care of the dog is the only truly selfless thing that he has ever done. Aside from the moral that the reader is intended to draw from this (which is not laid on too heavily), the fact that Monty’s imprisonment means that he and Doyle will have to be separated, probably forever, is a detail ingenious for the way in which it inspires pity for Monty’s fate. If only he hadn’t dunnit, he and Doyle would still be bouncing along the sidewalks, though Monty would be financially poorer and Naturelle might well have moved on to someone with a fatter wad of notes in his money-clip.