Posted in Random Things Tours

We Are Not In The World by Connor O’Callaghan.

‘The cargo door opens. It opens incrementally. It falls forward, away from us, into foreign day. There are men down there, stevedores in hi-viz and hardhats shouting to one another. I rotate the ignition to halfway, to check for evidence of light. The instrument panel flashes and falls still. There are chains. There is shrieking of iron like gates of hell. Then this fluorescence gradually floods the floor between rows and creeps towards us and feels warm.’

As soon as I read these lines, following Paddy as he and his lorry emerges from the ferry and out into the light, I knew the writing was going to be spectacular and that this was a poet’s novel. Paddy is travelling from England to France, with his stowaway daughter in tow. It’s hard to explain, but this is a book that manages to be both bitter and beautiful. There’s a bleakness to Paddy’s existence, but such a richness in the language used to describe it. It feels bang up to date too, despite the fact no pandemic is mentioned, the author captures a sense of unreality that is all too commonplace these days. The feeling that the world we know and understand has gone, and we are plunged into something other, like Alice down her rabbit hole. We Are Not In The World is an apt title indeed. We follow Paddy on his mundane journey, punctuated by graphic brief encounters and interactions with his daughter Kitty. However, we are also taken into Paddy’s memories of the past and into his relationships, which are largely disastrous. This is an intelligent rendering of psychological damage wrought within families. His marriage is broken, his brother is more successful than he is and there is a complex, almost Oedipal, relationship between him and his mother – also named Kitty. His daughter is wild and rebellious, and in another nod to Paddy’s mother, she wears her gran’s mink coat at all times.

This is not an easy read, but the right readers will love it. Having searched out some of the author’s poetry, it’s clear that the novel touches on some of the same themes. Family and sibling rivalry are represented in Paddy’s relationship with his brother. There’s a jealousy of his apparent successes, but Paddy has still made him the godfather of his daughter. There’s a sense that family is inevitable and no matter how much we wish to escape it we can’t. Separation is explored too – separateness from the land where he grew up, from family and even from his own self. There’s a sense of wanting to be home, but not being able to and the feeling of homesickness that pervades Paddy’s daily existence. He describes it as like a ‘low level virus’ that he permanently lives with. To me it felt like a low-level depression, one that would drop under the radar of most GP’s charts, but is debilitating nonetheless. There’s a numbness in Paddy. He’s on auto-pilot in his daily life, only living in his head until an interaction jolts him out of his memories. The separateness he describes is something I’ve felt when depressed or going through grief. I was physically in the world, but felt no connection to my surroundings or other people. It was like looking at the world through glass.

The only thing Paddy seems to look forward to is some sort of homecoming. He looks at the family home of Tír na nÓg as both a rose-tinted past and a future redemption. Situated on a shingle beach in Ireland, it feels like his chance of happiness or at least a respite from the homesickness that plagues him. Can it be a place of things coming full circle? A completion of this endless mental push and pull between past and future. It feels like a pipe dream, far removed from the reality he’s in and the way he thinks about certain family events, referred to by him and Kitty as ‘the thing we never mention.’ There are times when I wondered if Kitty was real, or whether her birth from the hiding place of his bunk behind the cab was purely metaphorical. I had moments of confusion, moments of being unsure how these fragmented memories and feelings fit together. I was even unsure of what was real and what was imagined occasionally. However, I loved the feelings it induced in me and the sheer beauty of the prose. There’s a haunting quality to the novel that will stay with me. It was a reading experience that I let wash over me, rather like listening to an opera or viewing a beautiful painting. This is for those readers who like their novels to be strange, and bleak, but beautiful at the same time.

Published by Doubleday 18th February 2022

Meet The Author

Conor O’Callaghan is originally from Dundalk, and now divides his time between Dublin and the North of England. His critically acclaimed first novel Nothing on Earth was published by Doubleday Ireland in 2016.

Posted in Publisher Proof

A Ghost In The Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa.

“This is a female text, composed while folding someone else’s clothes. My mind holds it close, and it grows tender and slow, while my hands perform innumerable chores.”

This novel is exceptional. It’s beautiful, moving and speaks about women’s experience in such a unique, but brutally honest way. The author has written an incredible piece of auto-fiction, which is half memoir and half novel but all poetry. While I can’t claim to be anything like the writer, I know this is the way I’m currently writing at the moment – as close to poetry as prose can get. I have always referred to it in my notes as a patchwork quilt of different images stitched together to make the whole. Our narrator is a mother of three small children and she has a fascination with the Irish poem ‘Caoineadh Airt Ui Laoghaire’ where an Irish noblewoman laments the death of the her murdered husband. Such is her passionate grief, that on finding his body, she drinks handfuls of his blood and then composes this extraordinary poem. For our narrator, the poem has echoed down the centuries and is her constant companion. As she reads it aloud the poet’s voice comes to life. The author writes her own life to its rhythms and wants to discover the truth of the poem’s story.

Entitled a ‘dirge and a drudge song’ the author details that drudgery, the minutiae of her day and her boredom and satisfaction in the endless tasks she ticks off the list. Repeating ‘this is a female text’ creates a refrain throughout the list, emphasising not just the physical but the mental load. She comments on it gaining importance through the written page, an importance that’s usually reserved for male stories. Women’s skills and stories have previously lacked importance because they are passed down orally, from mother to daughter along with home making skills like recipes and patterns. I loved this context because it’s inspiring. It tells us that our stories are important too. Just because they’re domestic doesn’t mean they’re less than. They are simply a social history rather than a military or political one. This is shown in the fact that, despite the poem being described as ‘the greatest poem written in these islands in the whole of the eighteenth century’ the history of the poet herself is hard to uncover. In the family, a tragedy almost occurs, and in the aftermath the author’s interest in the poet grows. However, it’s a very broken and hidden trail to find her.

I loved how her recording of 21st Century motherhood is treated as an epic. I loved the sense of a collective consciousness running through the book. As if her words join hundreds and thousands of others in a never ending stream of female consciousness. This isn’t just about putting your experience into the world, it’s about having a source of female wisdom to draw from whenever you need it. The poem is part of that consciousness, but so are many other papers we don’t think about as historical documents. In my work I’ve used the care sheets that I kept every day for my late husband, because they show what I was doing and I loved connecting them to more lyrical documents like my journal. The author adds to these collective documents, with her ‘family calendar scrawled with biro and pencil marks, each in the same hand – this is a female text. Month after month after month of appointments, swim lessons, half-days, bake sales, fundraisers, library returns, a baby’s due-date, birthday parties, and school holidays. Tick. Tick. Tick.’ They are not accounts of battles or elections won, but there are a thousand small victories here. If we think about how we leave our mark on this world we should think about all the ways we record our lives on this earth, from our Spotify playlist, our status updates, our Instagram photos, our Pinterest boards. All of these are a form of journal, the quiet way we express who we are and what’s happening in our worlds. We write ourselves into the cross stitch we do, the crocheted blankets, and the patchwork quilt we made for a new baby. We stitch ourselves into the tapestry of life, and the author emphasises this, with words so descriptive I could picture her and the family she works so hard for. This is a female text and in it’s search for the meaning of women’s lives it is reassuring, it lets us know we’re not alone, but it also inspires us all to create meaning. To add our voice to the women’s wisdom, expanding that collective consciousness and making our mark.

Meet The Author.

DOIREANN NÍ GHRÍOFA is a bilingual writer whose books explore birth, death, desire, and domesticity. Doireann’s awards include a Lannan Literary Fellowship, a Seamus Heaney Fellowship, the Ostana Prize and the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. She is a member of Aosdána. A Ghost in the Throat is her prose debut.