Book Reviews: Name Upon Name a great introduction to political understanding
Name upon Name by Sheena Wilkinson, published by Little Island
TRYING to boil down the complexities of Irish history for a young adult novel is no easy feat but one that Co Down writer Sheena Wilkinson has managed to do. In Name upon Name follow 14-year-old Helen trying to make sense of the First World War.
Helen's family are from different religious backgrounds and different classes. Her father is a Presbyterian headmaster in Belfast who met her Catholic mother when she moved up from her farm in the Mournes to care for a sick aunt.
Paternal cousin Sandy has been promoted in the British army while farmer Michael from Helen's mother's side is unsure of whether to listen to the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, John Redmond, and sign up. Helen doesn't know who to be more proud of or more scared for and it is through her eyes we see a tiny glimpse of the horrors of war.
Belfast-born Wilkinson masterfully combines the big questions of nationalism, pacifism and early feminism in a way so subtle that you would barely notice. Name Upon Name is a great way to introduce political understanding to young readers.
Outlaws by Javier Cercas (translated by Anne McLean), published by Bloomsbury
I’VE never been to Gerona/Girona, though so woven is the Catalan city into the fabric of this novel that I have a strong sense of the place – it’s rivers, the Ter and the Onyar; its neighbourhoods, especially the former red light district, for whose lost seediness Outlaws is a kind of paean; its suburbs; its hinterland; and its age (Gerona has a long, often violent history).
Gafitas is 16, a ‘good’ kid, born on the right side of the river, in 70s Spain when everything was up for grabs after Franco’s death. Streetwise Zarco, and enigmatic Tere, for whom Gafitas (Specky in English) throws caution to the wind, are from the slums – sharp, survivors.
Bullied at school, Gafitas joins their gang of teenage thieves for a heady, dangerous summer and nothing is ever the same again.
The politics of Spain coming out of dictatorship is here, as is class, but Outlaws is also about how the choices we make when we're young reverberate down the years.
The flow and richness of Cercas’s writing – he’s a well-known author and professor of Spanish literature – make lasting impressions.
A Slanting Of The Sun by Donal Ryan, published in hardback by Doubleday Ireland
IN 2013 Tipperary writer Donal Ryan won the Guardian first book award for his portrayal of post-crash small town Ireland, The Spinning Heart.
This was followed up by the heart-breaking The Thing About December (and yes, this is a phrase used all too often, but here it is entirely accurate). He returns now with a collection of short stories cut from the same cloth as his previous work – snapshots from lives, each thematically similar yet tightly contained in worlds of their own.
In the opening story, we meet a man just out of jail who forms a bond with the mother of the girl he ran over; there's the tale of a dedicated mother and wife (even here, Ryan makes the banal beautifully readable) with a shocking twist; an old man recalls a revenge killing's effect on his life.
Love (needing it and giving it), loneliness and displacement all find a home in these stunning pages.
Where My Heart Used To Beat by Sebastian Faulks, published in hardback by Hutchinson
SEBASTIAN Faulks plunges back into his favourite eddies in Where My Heart Used To Beat. Less cinematic than his biggest hitters to date, Birdsong and Charlotte Grey, he nicks away not-so quietly at his pet topics: memory, war, identity, psychology – and continues on what seems to be a personal quest to write down every facet of trench life.
At this he is a master (he's had a lot of practise), so the life of Robert Hendricks, a doctor and Second World War veteran searching for meaning since his father's death, materialises almost effortlessly.
From the sloshing trenches of Italy to the arms of a nurse, Luisa, and a remote island off the South of France where Hendricks's life story unspools thanks to the prodding of a dying physician, the book spans decades, leaving you quite worn out by the end of it.
However vivid the writing, however tangible the protagonist and his failings, the plot meanders at times, losing pace as Faulks gets bogged down in his ideas to a point that's almost indulgent. Committed Faulks fans will no doubt be satisfied though.
BOOK OF THE WEEK
Two Years, Eight Months And Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie, published in hardback by Jonathan Cape
Mischievous, malevolent jinn (genies) interfere with the human world in Salman Rushdie's latest novel, which combines a recognisable near-future with the magical world of Arabian mythology.
The plot follows this 'war between worlds', fuelled by a fictional, centuries-long disagreement between genuine historical Muslim philosophers Ghazali and Ibn Rushd, the latter of whom purportedly sired a small army of half-human children with the disguised, benevolent and extremely fertile jinnia Dunia.
Descendants of these offspring, who include a frustrated comic book artist and a Manhattan gardener, must come together in a battle between followers of God and reason, which is played out over two years, eight months and 28 (or 1,001) nights.
Rushdie channels the story of Scheherazade for this confusing, twisting novel, which nevertheless weaves readers into its tapestry of sex, death, ideas, arguments and human peccadillos.
He mimics the guise of an oral storyteller, with frequent digressions and explanations, and drops in the occasional muse on concepts that initially seem inconsequential, only to be picked up later in the narrative.
Fans should be satisfied and newcomers bemused, then enchanted, by the wordsmithery on show – before running to Google to research all the elements of Eastern history.