The Homesick Garden by Kate Cruise O’Brien

The Homesick Garden

Reviewed by Mary Hanley

The Homesick Garden is a very unusual masterpiece. Antonia’s voice carries us through the novel and her unpretentiously clear way of looking at things evokes a complex mixture of admiration, despair and delight! The novel is a chronicle of life, charting Aunt Grace’s unexpected pregnancy and the way various members of Antonia’s family cope with this bombshell. At times Antonia’s view on life can be agonised but overall her no-nonsense approach is uplifting, “I liked the house silent and calm and bare without the angry little noises made by two people disliking each other.” This is Antonia’s critical view on her parent’s relationship!

 The significance of the title in this novel is not by any means extremely relevant. The Homesick Garden is mentioned in the third chapter, “The second rule is ….. the second rule is my homesick garden.”  More importantly however is the  “homesick-garden-time” when Antonia’s  “Mum went off for a week. She’d been doing a lot of crying around that time. ‘I can’t cope!’ she would shriek.” This time obviously affected Antonia greatly and the homesick garden was never used again ‘after that summer’.

 We meet various zany characters during the course of the novel. Antonia is the watchful young narrator. The novel is literally smattered with theories on life. These theories are brought to the reader through Antonia. I felt that when I reached the end of the novel the trivial pieces of information faded into oblivion while Antonia’s ‘theories’ will certainly stay etched in my memory. This, I feel, is the legacy Antonia leaves us with.

 “Schools do label people because they’re brisk, convenient places and labels are brisk, convenient things. Once you’ve got a label, it sticks. So I was Clever Antonia and Stephen was Odd. If I had won Miss Ireland and Stephen had been declared All-Rounder of the Year, I don’t suppose it would have made much difference at school.”

 Antonia grows during the course of the novel. An example of this is her contrasting views on relationships at both the start and end of the novel, “At my worst, well at my worst I know that I can’t go out with boys”. While, in the concluding paragraph of the novel, Antonia woefully declares that, “As for Stephen, I think I’ll be an old, old woman before he does more than hold my hand in public and he’ll be an older man before I reach out and touch him”!!!   I enjoyed Antonia as a character throughout the novel and even though she didn’t add as she said herself “oomph” to the novel, I believe, she added a whole lot more.

 Elizabeth and Grace are the other main characters and they add an extra dimension to The Homesick Garden. They are interesting in the different methods they use in coping with the same situation. Elizabeth is the classic victim, “Mum has a pretty good figure when she sits up straight but something about Grandma’s biscuity voice makes her round her shoulders and cringe her arms over her front, defending herself again, poor Mum.” She also has a tendency to brush things under the carpet. Firstly, she treats Grace as if “her pregnancy had never been”.  She deals with her problems through the therapeutic method of cleaning with the dastardly Mini Maids and frail window cleaners in tow!  “Cleaning is”, after all, ”better than any other exercise.”

 Grace, on the other hand, aired everything out in the open and when she caused as much uproar in everyone’s life as she possibly could, she just vanished and hibernated for nine months. Grace is a very frank and earthy person and “she just loses her shape in her draperies” and, of course, “She was passionate about privacy”.  She literally let everything go to hell and buried her head in the sand while Elizabeth had to be there to pick up the pieces.

 The major themes running through this novel include the issue of maturation, the problem of abuse is also highlighted, while cleanliness is, yet another theme. The theme of relationships is intricately woven throughout the novel.  At the end of the novel we discover the reason for Elizabeth’s lack of self-confidence in relation to Grandma and the poor relationship she has with Antonia’s father. She had been physically abused by Quentin- a pompous young teenager whose family, the Thompson’s “hob-nobbed” with Grandma. Through Elizabeth, we receive a heart-rending and unsettling account of something that happened over thirty years ago but was still affecting her everyday life, “I was so frightened of it that I kept on forgetting about it. Until the next time.” “Did you get over it? ”, Antonia asked.  ” Maybe I’d have got over it, if I hadn’t trivialised it, made some sort of wrong sense of it, if I’d tried to remember it more often. But I sliced it off, put it in a separate compartment in my mind.” This voice of experience is coming from the Elizabeth who used to “shake and tremble whenever anyone is cross with her”. Ironically, this is a ‘coming to terms with’ novel for Elizabeth, while it is a ‘coming of age’ novel for Antonia.

 Cleanliness, is a strange but relevant theme throughout the novel. Antonia’s father plays an important role in this area. Unfortunately, this poor individual is not given a name! ”Dad is always pompous when he’s nervous”.  He is a very prim and proper man who, “doesn’t even answer the door in an emergency unless he’s shaved and has his socks on, armed to meet the world”!  Well, we all have our problems in life!!! Cleaning can have very peculiar effects on people’s personalities. For Antonia’s father, he just could not stand the Mini Maids working for him, even though he is,  “never very clear about why he can’t put up with them”. For Antonia, ”the kitchen transformed me from Florence Nightingale into Pioneering Woman”!

 I liked this novel. Even though it appeared to be ‘a light read’ it dealt with some important issues. Although The Homesick Garden is Kate’s first novel she already has a renowned track record as the author of many collections of short stories. Kate, I believe, has a natural story telling ability and a knack of engaging the reader with the issues she chooses to explore, “I wish I could say that everything changed, changed utterly, after Mum’s revelation’s and that a terrible beauty was born”. Nothing mind shattering occurred during the course of this novel, yet it was a pleasure to get to know Antonia and her family. I came across a definition for reading today- ‘the intimate act of opening a book and getting lost within the covers’. I feel I accomplished that while reading this enchanting novel.

 

 About the author….

 Kate Cruise O'BrienKate Cruise O’Brien was born in Dublin in 1948.   She was the youngest daughter of the politician, historian and diplomat Conor Cruise O’Brien and his first wife, Derry born Christine Foster.

Kate studied English in Trinity.  Her first short story, Henry Died, was published in New Irish Writing and won the Hennessy Award in 1971 when she was only 22.  The same year she married Joseph Kearney and they had one son, Alexander.

Her first book, A Gift Horse and Other Stories was published in 1979.  It won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature.  She worked as a columnist with The Irish Independent during the ’80’s and her second book, The Homesick Garden was published in 1991.

Kate Cruise O’Brien died suddenly in March 1998 and she is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.

 

 

 

 

 

A History of Loneliness by John Boyne – Review by Vincent Hanley

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John Boyne’s central character in A History of Loneliness is very wishy washy – he is, in effect, the embodiment of a blasphemous blessed trinity of monkeys – he sees no evil, he hears no evil, he speaks no evil. He is completely overshadowed in the novel by the monstrous presence of the notorious Tom Cardle, who bestrides the novel like a venomous, predatory, fiendish and malignant Brendan Smyth. Over the course of the novel Odran Yates shows himself to be, naïve, innocent and clueless. It cannot be claimed, as Tom Cardle accuses him towards the end of the novel, that Odran Yates has been complicit in the events that effected his family and his Church – if anything, the only accusation we can make is that he has been like the proverbial ostrich with his head in the sand for most of his priestly life.

The blurb at the beginning of the novel suggests that, ‘Fr. Odran Yates is a good man’ – not so. As the novel unfolds he is depicted as weak and insipid, he lacks passion, a real calling; he allows evil to flourish by his silence. I find very little to admire in Fr. Yates and this is obviously the author’s main aim. Fr. Yates’ narrative voice is akin to Heaney’s phrase in “Harvest Bow”, ‘gleaning the unsaid off the palpable’. We are forced to continuously read between the lines – his greatest sins are sins of omission. This is a deliberate ploy by the author. In Odran Yates we are presented with the embodiment of the unquestioning functionary who never questions authority. Are we therefore to presume that this is John Boyne’s thesis: that this insidious and widespread abuse continued on a vast scale because ‘good men’ like Fr. Yates stayed quiet – like good children of the 50’s they were seen but never heard?

This new and ambitious novel is set in Ireland, mainly in Dublin and Wexford, also in Rome and Lillehammer, Norway. The first thing that struck me, despite the mainly Irish setting, was that many of the family names are English – Yates, Cooper, Cordington, Camwell, Cardle, etc.

The relevance of the title of the novel, A History of Loneliness, is never nailed down. Loneliness is first mentioned on p442 and then again at the very end when Tom Cardle uses the phrase, ‘But then I have a history of loneliness. Don’t you?’, to Odran after his release from prison. This, I presume, suggests that the priestly vocation is a lonely road to undertake and that this loneliness has led us to the present impasse. To me, this is a very narrow and stereotypical and simplistic explanation for the horrors which have been revealed over the past number of years and is also based on a faulty understanding of priestly celibacy.

Boyne decides not to tell his story chronologically and this leads to some confusion, tooing and froing, backwards and forwards. The novel begins in 2001, then moves to 2006, 1964, 1980, 1972, 2010, 1973, 2011, 1978, 1990, 2007, 1994, 1978, 2008, 2012, and ends in 2013. Boyne is at his best in the 2000’s and his depiction of Ireland and its society is very realistic – as are his descriptions of events in Rome and Norway. However, his depiction of Ireland in the 60’s and 70’s, 80’s is less assured and this reader fumed at much of the lazy stereotypes used by the author. This material grated heavily on my nerves and, to me, was very exaggerated, stereotyped and, quite honestly, lacked credibility. Remember most of his readers will have lived through the years from the mid-fifties and many, like this reader, expected more. To me, it became obvious that the writer, far from trying to depict a sad and despicable period in the history of the Catholic Church in Ireland, has his own axe to grind.

The ‘Irish Mammy’, for example, is depicted in a very stereotypical fashion – ‘Our mammies had set us down one day and told us that we had vocations and so there we were, ready to dedicate our lives to God’. His own mother, ‘..had an epiphany one night while she was watching the Late Late Show’ to the effect that Odran was blessed with a calling from God. In general he suggests that all women in the 50’s lived rather sad lives – ‘.. and after all, that is what women did in those days: they went to school. They got a job, they found a husband, and they left the job and retired to the home to look after the family.’

His exaggerated strereotyping of women, priests, guards and politicians leaves a sour taste. On p.428 we are again presented with a less than credible scenario when he is leaving Pearse Street Garda station and the duty sergeant behind the desk hisses the word ‘Paedo’ as Odran leaves the station! Is this realistic or am I the naïve one? Politicians too are ridiculed as they come under the microscope, ‘Charles Haughey’s terrible crooked head grinning out from the front page with an expression that said that while he had not quite emptied the pockets of the Irish people just yet, he soon would.’

However, in my view, there is a noticeable improvement in the novel beginning with Chapter Six: 2010. There is less clichéd characterisation, less lazy stereotyping. Unfortunately, at this stage, we’re on p. 257 (iPad edition). Many readers will have by this point given up in frustration or disappointment.

However, Boyne has a number of ‘purple patches’ in the novel when the writing is superb; the Rome episodes, the episode when his parishioner, Ann Sullivan, brings her son to the priest, and nearly all the events depicted in the 2000’s are very credible, particularly the radio interview between Cardinal Cordington and Liam Scott and later his eventual journey to Lillehammer and his moving reconciliation with his nephew Aidan.

The episode where Ann Sullivan brings her son who has announced to her that he is gay is an excellent piece of writing. This shows John Boyne and his central character, at their best. Ann brings her son to the priest and during the conversation he mentions that he has a nephew who is gay and he recounts to the mother discussions he has had with Jonas concerning his awakening sexuality. Odran asks his nephew how he knew he was gay and Jonas replies, ‘that he had known since he was nine years old, that the video of a song called ‘Pray’ by Take That had set off the alarm bells.’ This is excellent, this is the John Boyne I remember – the writer who has the uncanny ability to make me feel compassion, even for a Nazi, once upon a time!

As well as Tom Cardle and Cardinal Cordington, Boyne’s other bête noir in the novel is John Paul II. There are numerous unflattering references to the Polish Pope – there is a very vehement and sustained attack on him – presumably because ‘he knew everything and did nothing’. He refers to him as ‘that Polish prick’. There are numerous examples of this vitriol, but I will recount just one: it occurs shortly after Odran’s ordination in Rome, which was performed by John Paul II. His sister, Hannah, was wearing a pale green shawl at the ordination and it slipped slightly as she came forward to be presented to the Pope, ‘and the Holy Father reached out immediately, an expression of near disgust on his face’. He is later described as being ‘a hater of women’.

Indeed, it would seem that Boyne is very harsh on the modern Church and its efforts to come to terms with the scandals that have befallen it. His depiction of lay involvement in the Church, for example, is very inaccurate – ‘the men helped to write the parish newsletter, but the women delivered it; the men organised the church social evenings, but the women cleaned up when they were over….etc.’

For me, the ending of the novel is disappointing and does not follow logically from what goes before. Odran now realises that he has wasted his life, that he, ‘had known everything, right from the start, and never acted on any of it’, that he, ‘was just as guilty as the rest of them’. I find this ending highly disconnected from what has gone before, it is a disappointing conclusion to an otherwise excellent read. Therefore, for me, the novel is somewhat of a curate’s egg of a novel – good in parts!However, the definitive narrative of Ireland’s disgrace remains to be captured in an honest and realistic way – maybe the film version of A History of Loneliness will hopefully better achieve this balance?

Errata:

  • Chapter Three:1964, his mother pays a specialist 40 pence – surely it should have been 3 shillings and 4 pence – he even confuses himself by flipping backwards and forwards across the decades!!!
  • ‘he enrolled as a novitiate in St. Patrick’s College’ – should read he enrolled as a novice in the novitiate in St. Patrick’s College….!
  • On p.502 Tom Cardle (in 1990!) takes £6 from the collection box….

The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan

 

 

 

image Donal Ryan doesn’t do rose tinted glasses and it is clear that the Irish Tourist Board aren’t going to be part funding the film version of this close to the bone realistic depiction of post Celtic Tiger Ireland. The novel has been long listed for the Mann Booker Prize and having read it the judges are unlikely to jump on a plane to explore the delights of Coolcappa, Moyross, Portroe, or the many uninviting ghost estates littering the Irish countryside.

The story of the novel unfolds and is presented to us via the inner monologues of twenty one characters living in a small rural community – twenty are alive while one character speaks from beyond the grave, still trapped in his squalid kitchen because ‘the Vatican done away with Purgatory’. This unique exposition reveals the incomplete story to the reader. Even at the end there are many loose ends, unanswered questions, unfinished plotlines. We are presented with numerous psychological profiles, each private self far different from the public personae on view. This disturbing epiphany is unsettling to say the least and is testimony to the searing perceptions and wry humour of this new shining star in the Irish literary firmament.

The events of the novel are ordinary and commonplace – apart maybe from the abduction of a young child from a crèche and the murder of an old bitter man. We are given insights into the lives of many affected by the economic crash, including a young Russian emigre stranded in a landscape where all dreams have died. Indeed, the characters in this novel have all gone three rounds with the Harvest Fair bucking bronco and they have all landed on their arse or their head. There are echoes and flashbacks to Synge’s masterpiece – Old Mahon, Christy and indeed Pegeen Mike are all here in this grubby modern Ireland. Themes of disappointment, regret, frustrated parental expectation, toxic shame, despair and depression are the new reality in this modern Littleton – or Ballybeg even!

The schitzophrenic, confessional nature of the novel lends to inevitable confusion in the reader. The characters struggle to cope in a world without moral compass or government. The priest and the Garda play bit parts but are rarely consulted or heeded. The author very cleverly sprinkles references to the present throughout the novel – we come across references to the whiners on Liveline, the State Pathologist, Dr. Marie Cassidy, the Abbeylara Incident and Donal Og Cusack ‘coming out of the closet below in Cork’!

Really, the more one thinks and reflects on the novel, the more one has to acknowledge the subtlety and genius of the author. He has managed to chronicle an era ‘warts and all’ and he has done so from a variety of perspectives with a weird and wonderful motley cast of distinctive voices.