The Shortlist: Three Novels Set in Ireland Past and Present


Credit John Gall

By Damian McNicholl
391 pp. Pegasus. Paper, $14.95.


Set in Northern Ireland in the 1960s at the height of the Troubles, “A Son Called Gabriel” tells the story of Gabriel Harkin, growing up in a working-class Catholic family. His adolescent struggles to define himself, with the daily fears and confrontations of the Catholic-Protestant divide raging around him, are complicated by the confusion and loneliness caused by his emerging homosexual feelings and clandestine encounters with boys whose feelings about what they do together are apparently very different from his own. Bullied relentlessly throughout his school years, Gabriel has long recognized that he was different without comprehending why, his sense of himself increasingly at odds with the strict beliefs and rules of his family and the church. At a beach outing, he is scolded for peering at a man changing his clothes under a towel. That night, Gabriel wants “to fall asleep remembering the beautiful man’s face. I wanted to relive the water droplets glittering like diamonds on his brown back and legs.”

Gabriel’s first-person narrative has an endearing frankness and intimate charm, despite occasional lapses into political captioning. (“‘If we respected our differences, then Ulster would be a far better place,’ I said. ‘Gabriel, shut up,’ said Mammy. ‘You’re too young to be politicking.’ ‘Politics my arse,’ said Daddy. ‘It’s the I.R.A. who’ll solve our problems.’”) First published in 2004, when it was a Lambda Literary Awards finalist, “A Son Called Gabriel” has now been revised and published in this new edition, according to an afterword by the author, because of a growing concern that this coming-of-age story had constrained its main character, “denying him both happy as well as painful opportunities and experiences.” For this reason, McNicholl explains, “with the advent of legal same-sex marriage in the U.S., I knew I had to rewrite a fundamental part of the novel. … I needed to depict scenes of hope and happiness. … I feel unburdened now that I’ve done Gabriel justice.”

By Hannah Kent
388 pp. Little, Brown. $27.


Kent, an Australian novelist whose first novel, “Burial Rites,” was based on the true events of a 19th-century murder in Iceland, has returned for her second novel to the 19th century and another inspiring true incident, this time an 1826 case of infanticide in Ireland: An elderly woman was put on trial when she drowned a child in an attempt to “put the fairy out of it.” Nora Leahy, a widow scratching a meager living from the soil in a Kerry valley, feels “suffocated by the constant neediness of her grandchild,” Micheal, a perplexingly feeble 4-year-old who can neither speak nor walk and whose mother, Johanna, has died. Nora journeys to Killarney to find a maid at the hiring fair, and returns to her village with 14-year-old Mary Clifford, drawn to her by her red hair, which reminds her of Johanna. “This girl had the same hair as her. The same as Micheal. A light copper – like a hare, or pine needles drying out on the ground.” Though Mary tends the sickly boy with care and patience, nothing improves his condition. After both the doctor and the priest have concluded Micheal is a hopeless idiot, his only chance seems to rest with the village’s elderly bean feasa (wise woman), Nance Roche, a “herb hag” who knows how to make potions and cures from herbs and plants. She also knows the rituals for protection from the fairies – the Good People, the Fair Folk, the Good Neighbors. Sometimes they will reward those who please them, but they can also be capricious and spiteful. “Sometimes ’tis all unreason and no knowing why things are as they are,” Nance says, “except to say ’tis the fairies behind it and they have their own intentions.” Both Nance and Nora are convinced that Micheal is a changeling, a creature left by the fairies, who have stolen the real child. Only a series of ritual immersions in the river can bring him back. Rural pre-famine Ireland in all its beauty and desolation is alive on every page of this exquisite novel, though the secondary characters rarely act beyond their defining identities (dismissive doctor, condemnatory priest, kindhearted hired girl). “The Good People” is a dramatic tale of desperation, set in a bleak time and place when no amount of protective ritual and belief – or goodness – can rescue people from their circumstances.

By Peter Cunningham
284 pp. Arcade. $22.99.


When an Irish-born mystery writer receives an ordinary-looking brown envelope in the mail at his rural Canadian home, it is addressed to “Alex Smyth, Author.” But instead of the usual letter of praise or criticism from one of his readers, the envelope contains only a surprising object folded inside a blank sheet of tissue paper. “What at first looked like a small, green insect with a black head, pale hackles and pink translucent wings lay there. Then I saw the tiny hook, curved and pointed, like a golden phallus.” Though initially Alex fears he is being stalked by someone reacting to his latest book, this trout fly is actually a wordless message from the past that stirs buried memories of his boyhood in Waterford. He becomes suffused with waves of guilt and shame that have been repressed for decades. Why does he have a foreboding sense that he was responsible for a death? This unexpected plunge into a dark well of old feelings paralyzes Alex as a writer and begins to threaten his grasp on everything he values in his life, including his marriage. In order to solve the mystery, he must travel back to Ireland, to revisit his childhood and seek some sort of reconciliation with his dying father.

Cunningham, whose novel “The Sea and the Silence” won the Prix de l’Europe in 2013, knows how to tell an absorbing and intricate story. The charm of this novel, which has metaphorical fly-fishing advice woven through its pages, lies in beautifully rendered observations of small, still moments. But the voice of this first-person story is, by design, Alex’s. The somewhat melodramatic sensibility of the novel’s mystery-writing narrator might explain the occasionally overwrought descriptions (“the sun’s rays dancing in his black curls,” “the gray is spun through her hair like chalk seams through slate”), which may distract readers from the tension and suspense of the story. Even so, Cunningham is a writer who knows exactly how to cast line after line with a deftness and grace that summon the truth from the depths of the past up to the surface, at last.

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