Two by Irish authors: Lynch and Keegan

Prophet Song by Paul Lynch

My first read from the Irish author, Prophet Song is shortlisted for the Booker Prize this year, and I can see why. I was, of course, drawn to its dystopian picture of a society collapsing. It’s not a book to love, but I did find it a compelling read once having got into Lynch’s style, staying up to read to the end one evening.

I’ll deal with that style point first. Each of the scenes is written as a single paragraph, dense on the page, yet not as long as Saramago’s extended chapters in Blindness; Lynch employs a similar punctuationless style for speech. Most of the time its obvious who is speaking, so this wasn’t a problem for me, it does flow once the reader is in the groove, so to speak.

The novel begins with a knock on the door. Eilish is at home with the children, waiting for her husband Larry to get home. When she opens the door, it’s the Garda, they want to speak to Larry and leave a card asking him to call asap. It wasn’t the normal police though, it was the Garda National Services Bureau, the GNSB, who want to talk to Larry about his teachers trades union activism, a strike is on the cards. Larry is badly rattled after talking to them.

Whereas Eilish is just worn out and bored with the monotony of her life, getting the baby to the crèche, Molly and Bailey to school, she doesn’t see teenager Mark much any more. Then off to work where she was a proper microbiologist before but now is an administrator. There’s also her elderly father’s beginnings of dementia but equally lucid moments to deal with on her regular visits to him. But, they have their planned holiday off to Canada to stay with her sister to look forward to, if only Larry would remember to fill out the passport forms for the children.

So Lynch has set up a typical working family doing their best for their kids. Eilish is worried. Larry tries to reassure her:

Eilish, listen, you need to relax, the GNSB are not the Stasi, they are just applying a little pressure, that is all, some disruption and harassment to get us to back off, we are fifteen thousand strong and the government is nervous but they cannot stop a democratic march, just you wait and see.

Little does he know. The march doesn’t go well, Eilish’s boss shows her the news which shows the riot police going all out against the protestors. Larry can’t be reached. He doesn’t come home…

Just like that, the Stack family’s life is completely changed. Eilish still looks forward to their holiday, but when a passport for Mark is refused, it starts to look like it might not happen. The union lawyers do their best, but as the government becomes increasingly totalitarian, they get scared, there is no news about Larry.

I’m sure you can imagine the ongoing scenario: the so-called government cracking down on the populace. Curfews and food shortages. And then they want to draft all the young men into their army – Mark is 17, nearing 18. What are they to do?

It is totally grim.

In conversations on the web, many have commented about Eilish’s passivity, but I could totally understand it. Life events can throw you into a limbo which can take months, years to pull out of – my mum dying and divorce after did that for me, reading and blogging were the things that kept me going, but otherwise I achieved little for ages. What Lynch does so well is to show that act of going through the motions, just carrying on in the face of adversity. Equally, he also documents the process of extremism taking over and loss of personal freedoms chillingly.

My second Booker shortlist read after the Bernstein, (a novel which I have reappraised allegorically after discussions, but still found too internalised), I wouldn’t be surprised if Prophet Song won. See also what Susan and Cathy thought of it.

Source: Own copy. Oneworld hardback, 320 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)

So Late in the Day by Claire Keegan

First published in the New Yorker last year, Faber released this short story as a little hardback a few months ago. Given how much I loved Small Things Like These and Foster, I was always going to want to read this.

The story concerns Cathal, who is having a boring afternoon at the office in Dublin. He has minimal conversations with his colleagues, brushes past the Polish cleaning lady on the stairs on his way out, chooses not to squash in a seat next to a lady who’ll likely be a talker on the bus home to Arklow. But another passenger’s perfume triggers memories for him of Sabine, whom he nearly married, and throughout the rest of the story, Keegan will gradually tell us about their relationship and why it failed.

They met at a conference, and gradually became a couple, eventually becoming engaged – although Cathal makes a complete dogs-ear of his proposal taking all the romance out of it. Sabine, a Frenchwoman, is however, generous in spirit and accepts him, although his miserliness is at odds with her love of good food. They have an argument over buying cherries which is particularly pertinent. He also can’t cope with her things invading his home. As if it wasn’t clear already, we gradually gather that Cathal is a bit of a misogynist, with some old fashioned attitudes and language, and later in the story Sabine takes him to task about it with words that I hadn’t expected from Keegan, it’s very direct!

Definitely worth the read, but this story didn’t have the emotional heft of Small Things or Foster, it’s a much smaller thing! (pun intended)

See also what Jacqui thought of it here.

Source: Own copy. Faber hardback, 47 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)

9 thoughts on “Two by Irish authors: Lynch and Keegan

  1. Carlton says:

    I read So Late in the Day at the weekend and agree that it didn’t have the emotional heft of Small Things or Foster. I wonder if it would have had greater impact if written from Sabine’s viewpoint. But still, beautiful use of language.
    Prophet Song sounds too dark for me at the moment, but very topical.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      She does write so beautifully, doesn’t she – so much so that Sabine’s outburst took me by surprise. It would be interesting to contrast Sabine’s PoV though…

  2. Elle says:

    Yeah, I was so impressed with Prophet Song. Eilish’s passivity makes perfect sense to me. What on earth do regular people even *start* to do in these situations? Would I be any more capable of firm and decisive action? Absolutely not.

  3. A Life in Books says:

    Thanks for the link, Annabel. I think we had similar reactions to the Lynch: I thought the dense presentation underlined the relentlessness of the situation and was a bit bemused by those discussions of Eilish’s passivity. What was she supposed to do? Keen to read the Keegan but perhaps I’ll keep a check on my expectations!

  4. Rebecca Foster says:

    I haven’t felt drawn to Prophet Song; I’m not sure I’d read it even if it won the Booker. The Keegan is a must for me, though. The U.S. edition reprints some of her earlier stories (“Antarctica,” etc.) with the title one so is a bit less tiny.

  5. JacquiWine says:

    Thanks for the link, Annabel. Like you, I preferred Keegan’s other books (Small Things and Foster) and felt this recently-published story lacked some of the subtlety of those earlier two. It’s still good, but not quite up there with her best!

  6. Liz Dexter says:

    The Lynch sounds too grim for me but well done for reading it. And I’m afraid I’ve been meanly resisting these little expensive hardbacks! I’ll wait for a proper bigger collected stories …

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