This beautifully written novella opens with Anastasia King, aged twenty-two, whose return to Dublin sets the scene for an emotionally charged reunion with her spiteful grandmother. Anastasia is a lonely character whose unhappiness in her only home is dominated by a matriarchal bitch whose talents are to mask spite with manners, deconstruct every single argument, and pull her granddaughter apart piece by piece. Nothing new about that—this character is the kind we hope is extinct but whom we find to be alive and well and sharing our surname. But the strength of The Visitor is its deliciously understated insights into Irish life and smooth excerpts on the human condition, as told through the eyes of an Irish writer whose own sadness echoes that of Anastasia’s.
Naming the Stars, a duo companion with Two Moons
Although this novella opens in more recent times, Flora returns frequently to earlier years, blending 1920’s and 30’s Ireland throughout this tender story. Flora’s voice is hilariously honest, captivating insights into family and customs long gone, but it is the lies, tragedy, and long-buried secret that Flora finally shares that captivate readers. The fact that parts of Flora’s story mirror those of so many Irish women makes this stunner of a novel particularly poignant. Johnston’s writing is exceptionally honest, and her sleight of hand produces nuances so rich and delicate that Flora and Nellie appear as if they’ve always existed.
Privilege meets History in this striking tale of three sisters, during one of Ireland’s most turbulent times. With the First World War looming, the Gifford sisters’ drive for independence from their parents is central, shadowed by the country’s struggle and the 1916 Rising. Their decisions cause them to meet, and fall in love with, real-life historical figures Thomas MacDonagh and Joe Plunkett. Rebel Sisters brings to life a country long gone – from the norms that society expected of young women to the many hindrances that blighted their liberation. The Ireland depicted is almost unrecognisable to the modern reader, but Conlon-McKenna packs enough human emotion, dialogue, and action to romp the story from first line to last.
The Country Girls Trilogy
While many readers fall in love with O’Brien’s delicate prose, myself included, her story scares the life out of some, myself included. Caithleen Brady and her friend Baba make for an unlikely pair as they painfully yank free of 1950’s Irish country life. Caithleen’s fear and trepidation is matched only by Baba’s daring hilarity as they venture to the unknowns of Dublin. My first reading of The Country Girls was over twenty years ago and I gasped as much at their antics as at the torturous social, cultural, and sexual constraints this book depicts: if I’d lived in the 1950s, I, like O’Brien and her characters, would have had to find the nearest exit and crash through it. The Country Girls has its slants of fun and adventure, but for these two young women, the opportunities to live the lives they hope for are obliterated by those around them. It is perhaps this element that grips so many readers with writing that is beautiful and brutal. This novel was banned for many years, and O’Brien endured tremendous criticism, but watching Caithleen struggle to find her own way is equally heartbreaking. It is an accurate account of my mother’s Ireland, the Ireland that scared too many young women into burying ambition, forgetting plans, keeping pretty heads down, and saying nothing.
The Last September
The year is 1920 and the word is… ‘fun’? Blissfully isolated from the nearby Troubles and War of Independence, Lois’ existence in the ‘Big House’ of Danielstown means that this young Anglo-Irish lady enjoys all that privileged society has to offer, learning little of the political and actual fires beyond the walled gardens. Lois’ naïveté and sense of displacement as an orphaned niece are a backdrop to parties, flirtations, frivolous companions, and British Army sub-officer Gerald, whose blossoming romance with Lois leaves her family in a tizzy. Written in 1928 with wit and perception, Bowen shows us a sliver of Irish society so consumed with giddiness, dry humour, and ignorance of their own country that when awareness finally comes to Lois and her family, it is altogether too late.