As the heading says, I am looking for some help here. Six months ago I started a Readers Group in the retirement complex where I now live. We meet once a month and share our reading experiences since we last met over tea, coffee and a large box of biscuits. It’s been very successful, not least because it has brought some people out of their apartments who would not normally join in with other activities. One of these is my friend Graeme, who is in the early stages of dementia. I think he is so brave to come and join in our discussions despite the fact he is finding it increasingly hard to recall what he has read. I have suggested that he makes a few notes about what he wants to say to bring with him and that has helped but the time is coming when getting pleasure from a full length novel is going to be more difficult and so I tentatively asked if he would be interested in reading some short stories. The problem is that, like me, Graeme primarily reads for plot and short stories don’t always fit with that type of reader’s tastes. Furthermore, his real passion at the moment is Dan Brown and with my very limited knowledge of the genre I can’t think of a collection I could recommend that would fit his preferences. I brought very few volumes of short stories with me when I came here and they are nearly all written by women. I certainly don’t have anything I think would be suitable. Can anyone suggest anything that might be appropriate? I would be very grateful and I know Graeme and his wife would be as well. Thank you in advance.
OK so I know I’ve written about this before, and not all that long ago either, but yet again I’ve found myself putting down two books in succession because whatever the author was doing, or even thought they might be doing, they weren’t telling me a story. I know that plot isn’t the be-all and end-all of a novel, but for me it is the most important aspect of narrative and if a book just ambles around and eventually goes nowhere then I’m sorry but it and I are going to part company. I think I might be more attuned to this at the moment because of a conversation I had with my hairdresser on Thursday. She has two children, a boy, thirteen, who reads as if books were going out of fashion and a girl, eleven, who wouldn’t normally give them the time of day. (Stereotypes eat your hearts out!) Well, last week there had been a book fair at school and the lass had come home with not only a book bought out of her own money but also a bad case of what I call ‘just one more chapter’ syndrome. (If you’re reading this then you know precisely what that is. I have lost count of the times I’ve been late as a result of ‘just one more chapter’.) When I asked what the book was it turned out to be Philip Pullman’s ‘Northern Lights’, the first in his trilogy about Lyra and the alethiometer and inevitably this brought to mind the author’s acceptance speech when the novel won the Carnegie Medal. In adult literary fiction, he claimed, stories are there on sufferance. Writers take up their stories as if with a pair of tongs. They’re embarrassed by them. If they could write novels without stories in them, they would. Sometimes they do. If you want to find adult literature with stories, he asserts, then you need to go to genre fiction.
Now, I think Pullman is rather over-egging the pudding in what he claims about adult literary fiction, but nevertheless he has a point. I wouldn’t have had to go searching for a story in a book intended for children, nor in, say, a crime novel or a fantasy tale. Style over substance isn’t going to wash in any of those areas. But we all need story. It is how we make sense of the world. It is how we come to empathise with people in situations we are never likely to encounter. It’s why services like Netflix are so popular, because they dish up story after story after story. As Pullman remarks, we need stories so much that we are even willing to read bad books to get them. I can verify that this is true because as a result of my two failures I picked up a crime novel that I had been avoiding as I knew how poor it would be stylistically, just because I had to have a story. The poverty of its writing was made all the more apparent because I had just finished another crime novel, William Brodrick’s The Sixth Lamentation, which is not only a good story but is also beautifully written. The contrast very nearly made me put down a third book, but no, it had a story and so I persevered, got involved and read on to the end.
Of course, there are some writers of adult literary fiction whom I can trust to give me a good story every time and to tell it stylishly as well. Pat Barker, Penelope Lively, Maggie O’Farrell, Sebastian Barry, Patrick Gale, Simon Mawer, Kate Atkinson, William Boyd, Hilary Mantel, Ann Patchett, Curtis Sittenfeld and Anne Tyler come to mind. But when you’re taking a chance on someone new…well, it can be a chance indeed.
OK, I will get down off my soapbox now and go in search of a recent story that isn’t necessarily either genre fiction or written with children in mind. If anyone has any suggestions they will be grateful received.
Do you ever hit one of those patches when whatever the book you pick up it just doesn’t seem to hit the spot? That’s what this week has been like for me. With some books I haven’t even got past the first few pages, others I have regretfully put to one side after a few chapters and then there has been one that I have stuck with and will finish, but I’m not certain that I will read any more in the series.
I think I am finally going to have to call time on my attempts to read anything from the British Library Crime Classics imprint. While I was in the library at the early part of the week I picked up a copy of Anthony Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case determined that this time I would see the book through to the end. The premise concerns a murder that the police have failed to solve and to which the members of a club devoted to amateur sleuths then undertake to offer their own solutions. I got halfway through the first proffered solution, decided that I didn’t want to spend any more time with a group of (as it seemed to me) self-satisfied Smart Alecs bound to do better than the poor lower class policeman and took the book back.
OK, I know that much of what I was objecting to is part and parcel of the convention within the restraints of which the authors were working, but that didn’t make it any the more palatable. And, although I seem to be having difficulty finding them at the moment, there are too many books out there waiting to be read for me to spend time with a series that just doesn’t do it for me.
A book that I have almost finished and will complete this evening, even though it has been a bit of a slog, is Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death, the first of James Runcie’s Granchester Mysteries. I seem to remember trying to get into this when it first came out and failing miserably. This time, although I feel that Runcie is trying to mimic many of the conventions that annoy me in the British Library collection, I have managed to get within striking distance of the end. Perhaps it wins out in contrast with the Berkeley. The book is set in the 1950s and part of what irritates me is the fact that much of what it depicts is a series of stereotypes of the period. I know about the fifties; I was there. If you want a more accurate portrayal of the time while sticking with the crime genre then I suggest that you try Laura Wilson’s Ted Stratton novels, which move from the war years through the following decade. They ring much more true. This has a feeling of Downton Abbey about it: the past recollected and distorted through rosy tinted glasses. I was also put off by the fact that it isn’t just one straight through narrative, but a series of stories, linked by the slowly developing relationship of Sidney and Amanda Kendall. However, I’ve stuck with it, partly because I hadn’t got anything else immediately to hand but also because halfway through Sidney is given a black Labrador puppy. I am a sucker for puppies of any sort and for Labs in particular. The occasional mention of Dickens and his exploits has kept me going. Whether or not I shall continue with the rest of the series is another matter. Does anyone know if the subsequent books are just one story? If they are also a series of shorts then I don’t think I shall bother.
Of course, part of this dry spell is of my own making. I have several books that I am hoarding for the Christmas period, including the new Tana French, The Wych Elm, the second in Mike Craven’s Avison Fluke series and forthcoming books by both James Oswald and Kate London. Come Boxing Day I shall shut up shop for the rest of the week and simply wallow in the latest offerings of four of my favourite authors. At least there is something to look forward to.
At a recent book group meeting someone asked whom we would choose if we could only read the works of one author for the rest of our lives. This is, I hope, a hypothetical question that sometimes comes into my mind if I happen to catch the end of the radio programme, Desert Island Discs, where a guest is asked to chose not only the eight pieces of music they would take with them were they to be castaway on said desert island, but also to nominate a book to sit alongside The Bible and the Collected Works of Shakespeare. (As an aside, people often ask for a specific translation of The Bible, but I have never heard anyone ask the, for me, far more important question concerning which edition of the Collected Works; believe me, it matters!) Sometimes the castaway tries to cheat by asking for a group of books by an author, say all the Barchester Towers novels, to be bound together in one volume. I sympathise, but it isn’t really playing that particular game. It does, however, raise the question of which author I would chose, a question that we found ourselves discussing at our last meeting.
In the time that we had it was only possible to give just a snap answer, with writers like Trollope and Dickens springing immediately to mind, but coming away and giving it greater consideration later I began to think rather more seriously about the criteria I ought to be bringing to bare. Just from a practical point of view, I suppose the more books they have written, the better. However good the work might be, I can’t see me opting for a one hit wonder. But, being prolific doesn’t necessarily walk hand in hand with producing work that will stand the test of time. Which is going to be more important?
Having put to one side for the moment the temptation to choose an author simply because they are on that list of classic writers who have stood the test of time, I found myself considering popular, but rather more light-weight candidates: people to whose work I turn when I am having one of those days. Jodi Taylor’s The Chronicles of St Mary’s, come to mind. (As a second aside, do you know that you can now get St Mary’s merchandise? I am so definitely having a mug with an honour and a privilege on it.). There is also a 60s and 70s writer, Jane Duncan, who wrote a series of semi-autobiographical novels about growing up in the Highlands during the early part of the twentieth century and her time living in the Caribbean during the 1950s, when her husband’s work took them out to one of the last great sugar plantations in private ownership. Neither of these authors is likely to win prizes for great literature, but what they both do is create a cast of characters with whom I want to spend time. I know that Taylor’s Max and Peterson and Markham aren’t real, and that however much I wish it wasn’t the case, Duncan’s Janet, George and Tom owe as much to her imagination as they do to the real life members of her family; none of that matters. The characters these writers have created are ‘friends’. There is an entire set of both series on the kindle that goes everywhere with me and if I find myself with just five minutes to spare and don’t want to simply pick away at whatever I happen to have currently on the go, I will select a favourite episode and relive a much loved moment. (Aside the third – there was an article in one of this morning’s papers about boots with soles that heat up in cold weather and I automatically found myself asking if their design was based on Bashford’s testicles. Most of you will have no idea what I am talking about, but anyone who has read Taylor’s What Can Possibly Go Wrong will have raised exactly the same question. Has Professor Rapson finally got it right?)
I found the fact that I was being drawn to writers whose work is at least as much based on character as on plot surprising, because I have always thought of myself as being a plot driven reader but perhaps a writer who appeals just because of their plots isn’t the one to choose in this scenario. You can only mine a work for its plot just so many times. However, neither Taylor nor Duncan are using fiction to ask penetrating questions about the human personality and the way in which society works and perhaps over time I would need that. Choosing an author with those criteria in mind is going to take greater thought and a second post. Do you have any suggestions?
There was an article on the radio this morning about procrastination. I’m afraid I was in the middle of getting breakfast and so didn’t hear what had brought this topic to the fore but I did hear someone talking about putting together to-do lists and allowing things that they really didn’t want to tackle to slip down to the bottom of an ever growing catalogue of tasks that they were not getting round to dealing with.
I am actually pretty good at addressing things that need doing around the house as soon as they arise. I suspect that this has something to do with my Aspergers. I am only really comfortable when I know that everything is in its place and functioning properly. Nothing annoys me more than to be thwarted in my attempts to ensure that this is the case than incompetent companies who promise one thing and then do either something entirely different or, more often, nothing at all. And yes, my current electricity suppliers I am looking straight at you. However, adding yet another book to my ‘to be read as soon as I can get a copy’ list this morning, I realised that I am not so well disciplined when it comes to reading.
I have kept lists like this for as long as I can remember. Every now and then they become so long and so unruly that I simply abandon them and start again from scratch. The current one, I note, dates back to the spring of 2014. Because nearly all my books these days come from the library, there are two main reasons why individual titles slide further and further down the list. The first was epitomised this morning. I read a review of a debut crime novel that seemed exactly my type of read. However, when I interrogated the catalogues of both local library authorities neither of them had ordered a copy. This is perfectly understandable given that this is a new author and that the book isn’t actually published until the beginning of September. Of course they are going to wait and see how it is received before splashing out their limited resources. When I was in their position I would have done the same. But, how long will I go on remembering to check and see if they have bought a copy? You used to be able to ask for books that you wanted to see on their shelves to be acquired, but as money has become ever tighter, this is a service that is no longer available. As we get further and further away from the date of publication and more and more novels take my eye, this book will sink ever deeper into the lists and I will probably never get round to reading it.
The second reason that books tend to disappear into the depths of the tbr list is almost the opposite of the first. These are books that are not only bought by the library but are ordered weeks, sometimes months in advance of publication because they are by established and popular writers. As soon as they appear on the catalogue I put in my reservation just so that I won’t find myself at position 40 something in the waiting list for the one or two copies they have been able to afford. What inevitably then happens is that just like the buses on certain well known routes, half a dozen of them turn up at the same time and are then vying for my attention along with all the other material I am reading for book groups and courses. Automatically I cherry pick the ones that I am most desperate to read and at least two or three will have to be returned to the library unread. Not only is this frustrating for me but it means I have books on my shelves that other readers could be enjoying. This is not an example of what is commonly known as ‘best practice’. Some of these I will reserve again, but others slip through the net and down to the bottom of that notorious tbr list. When I look back to 2014 I see that there is a Julian Barnes, a John Le Carré, a Sue Gee, an Andrew Taylor, just to name a few, languishing at the very bottom of what is a disgracefully long catalogue of titles.
There is no practical answer to this, I know. I can never hope to read all the books I want to and these titles haven’t really sunk to the bottom of the list because I have been putting them off, although I suspect they are the ones that I was least anxious to read. I notice there is no Peter Robinson, no Kate Atkinson, no Elizabeth Strout on the list. There will always be some books that I will, abandoning all others, read as soon as they come through the door. However, while there may be no practical, or even impractical answer to the problem, perhaps you have found a better way of dealing with your back catalogue of must reads. If so, I would be really pleased to hear about it.
As always happens at the end of any Summer School last Friday we were reluctant to part and go our separate ways. Consequently, we sat chatting about all things bookish over the inevitable pot of tea for far too long, given that we were meeting in someone’s home and she must really have wanted her front room back. One of the subjects to which the conversion turned was the old chestnut of books that we have never been able to finish. Of course, the usual suspects raised their heads, War and Peace, The Remembrance of Things Past, Ulysses and the like. I have never been tempted to even start to read either Ulysses or Proust so I’m not certain whether that counts towards not having finished them or not. However, I have read War and Peace – one winter many years ago when I had a long wait between buses on my way to work and needed something to read while I was standing at the bus stop. It kept me going through the worst of the weather, which sometimes seemed to be trying its level best to mimic the terrifying snow storms round Moscow.
My contribution to the catalogue of DNFs raised many an eyebrow. I have to admit that I haven’t ever managed to get to the end of Wuthering Heights. The Brontes are far too melodramatic for me and I certainly have never been able to understand their taste in men. I can’t see the attraction in Rochester so there is no way that Heathcliff is ever going to appeal to me. Give me Darcy or Knightley any day of the week. (Actually, my current literary passion is Leon Farrell from Jodi Taylor’s Chronicles of St Mary’s but that is, quite literally, another story.)
So, I have bared my soul and opened myself to the ridicule of the reading public; now it is your turn. What are you going to admit to never having finished? Are you going to add to those who have failed over the usual suspects or are you, like me, going to horrify large sections of your audience with your unexpected (unacceptable) admissions. I’m not certain some of us in the Summer School Group will ever speak to the person who admitted to giving up on The Lord of the Rings again.
Some years ago I used to belong to a local library book group. We didn’t all read the same book but just met every month to talk about what books we had been reading and to pass on recommendations to those we thought might enjoy them. Inevitably, we all had very different tastes and, it transpired, very different reading habits, but we rubbed along and forgave each other what you might call our literary eccentricities. However, there was one member of the group whose approach towards a new book I could simply never understand. She would always turn to the last few pages and read those first. She said that she simply couldn’t read a book unless she knew in advance how it was going to end. Now, I have written an entire PhD thesis on the final cause in narrative, arguing that the dénouement of a story dictates everything that goes before, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t still want to actually read a story in the order that the writer has chosen to present it and have the pleasure of anticipating (rightly or wrongly) what is to come. Reading the last pages first seemed to me to be a bizarre idea until, that is, yesterday, when I found myself doing exactly that.
I had just picked up the latest novel by a writer I have been reading for decades. It is part of one of a number of series this author has established and while waiting for publication I had re-read its immediate predecessor. That re-reading had reminded me that the writer, never one for the faint-hearted, has, over the last two or three books, moved the truly shocking events from the climax of the story to the conclusion. Just when you thought the tale was completely wound up a last minute (last page) bombshell would explode, not only in the reader’s face, but usually in that of the main characters as well. This is something that I think you can get away with once, twice if you are a very good writer, but more than that and it begins to look like a badly played out ploy to bring readers back for the next episode. In the case of this particular series the bombshell is almost always the result of a terrible error of judgment on the part of one particular character and destroys any sense of returning equilibrium the reader might have been anticipating. Now, I’m sure that the writer would argue that the character concerned is behaving in a psychologically consistent way; my counter argument would be that nobody with her/his particular psychological flaws would still be walking the streets, let alone be holding down an extremely responsible job. In other words what has happened is that I no longer trust the writer to offer me a true picture of the world. And so, as I sat down to begin this latest book I found myself thinking, “has s/he done it again?” And, because I couldn’t face another final pages’ disappointment I read the last chapter first.
The book will go back to the library unread.
Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t that I want all books to end with ‘and they all lived happily ever after’ – I am no Bilbo Baggins. During the summer I read the final novel in Robin Hobb’s Farseer series, Assassin’s Fate. Now there is a novel that didn’t end the way I wanted it to if ever there was one. I read the last forty or so pages through streaming tears. But, while it may not have been the ending I wanted, it was the right ending; it was a true ending and in fact far more of a validation of the characters and the world they inhabit than anything I had been looking for. Hobb’s conclusion didn’t destroy my belief in her fictional world, it vitally enhanced it.
So, when Hobbs next puts pen to paper I will give no thought whatsoever to turning to the last page first because I trust her to create a fictional world that will respect its own truth. The other author, I’m afraid, will join a small list of writers that I have enjoyed but who I no longer read. The paradox is that fiction only works when we can believe in its internal truth.
October turned out to be a month complicated by illness. I started it laid low by the after effects of just three antibiotic tablets and finished it in a similar state as the result of a feverish cold. Normally when I’m ill I eschew anything new and instead return to old favourites, usually series books, where I can spend time with old friends who will appreciate my predicament and not demand anything too taxing of me. At the beginning of the month, too ill even to read, I took advantage of the fact that I had the audio version of The Lord of the Rings downloaded onto my iPad and turned that on to play through what I knew was going to be a long and difficult night. I reasoned that if I did manage to sleep at any point it wouldn’t matter because I know the books so well I would just be able to pick up wherever in the story I resurfaced. And, that’s precisely what happened, although predictably what sleep I did get coincided neatly with my favourite parts of the tale. The epilogue to this story is that two days later I discovered Audible had awarded me my Nightowl Badge. How they know at what time of the day I am listening, given that the book had been downloaded not streamed, I have no idea, but I have to say that I am inordinately proud to be acknowledged a Nightowl.
At the other end of the month I did, in fact, read something new in the midst of my cold, or at least a new episode of an old favourite. The arrival of the sniffles coincided with the delivery of my copy of Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage and there are some books which simply can’t be put off. It was the perfect read for the situation, especially as it is nowhere near as intellectually demanding as His Dark Materials. I shall probably return to it over the Christmas period to be sure that I’m not underselling it, but I really don’t think so. I enjoyed it very much, but I hope the other two volumes give me a bit more to chew on.
In between I had two re-reads for books groups, Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle and Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End. As I said in my post about the Grant novel, the group was split. Two thirds of us had very much enjoyed it, while the others had severe reservations. Not so the Barry. Everyone of us had been knocked sideways by it. As one of our most critical members said, she had been waiting and waiting for him to let the voice slip just once, not believing that anything could be so perfect. She waited in vain. Once more, the Booker judges left us dumbfounded.
I’ve also read a number of crime novels, some of which I have reviewed here and some not. These comprise: Louise Penny’s Glass Houses, Quintin Jardine’s State Secrets, Sarah Ward’s A Patient Fury and Beneath the Surface by Jo Spain. Plus, in preparation for the 1968 project, I’ve re-read two of the marvellous children’s novels published that year, Joan Aiken’s The Whispering Mountain and A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin.
Looking forward to November, both my book group selections will again be re-reads, this time Helen Dunmore’s spy novel, Exposure and A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler. The first is my choice and I will almost certainly write after the meeting about how the discussion went and why I chose this particular book. The second was a last minute change of heart on the part of the person leading the group this month. We were supposed to be reading Roddy Doyle’s The Woman Who Walked into Doors, which would have been new to me, but the person who had selected it suddenly got cold feet about the bad language it apparently contains and so I have, as I say, another re-read.
I also have Frances Brody’s latest Kate Shackleton novel, Death Among the Stars, waiting for me, as well as Laura Wilson’s latest standalone mystery, The Other Woman. I’m not a great fan of standalone mysteries, but I make an exception for Wilson, who is an excellent writer and this has come very well recommended. In addition I’ve picked up the first novel by crime writer Angela Marsons, Silent Scream. I don’t know how I’ll get on with this. It is set almost within walking distance of where I live and the last local crime fiction I tried got so much wrong about the locale that halfway through I tossed the book away in disgust. Still, nothing ventured and all that. Then I want to read at least one book for the Years Of My Life project. I’ve managed to get hold of Blyton’s Rockingdown Mystery, which will probably wile away a rainy afternoon at some point and I’d like to also get round to The Third Man. I’m putting off choosing between Laski and Mitford until December. If there isn’t much new around over Christmas, I might even treat myself to both of them. But that’s for next month.
Somehow I have managed to carve out five days at the end of this week when I have to answer to no one but myself. From Thursday through to Monday I can, if I so desire, close the door, build up the fire and simply sit and read. The anticipation is almost as blissful as I hope the experience will be.
In truth I probably won’t just read. I expect I shall vary my activities by doing things like frequenting bookshops or taking a trip to the library. And I shall probably vary the places in which I read as well, by visiting numerous tea shops and buying large pots of tea and plates of sticky cakes to accompany whatever happens to be the book of the moment.
And that, of course, is the other source of anticipatory delight. What am I going to read? I have three recent publications sitting on the shelf just crying out for my attention. I shall start with Helen Dunmore’s Exposure and then toss a coin to see which is to come next, David Mitchell’s Slade House or the new Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time. I’ve also got Graham Swift’s most recent offering, Mothering Sunday on reserve, but it may not turn up from the library in time. Oh well, I shall need something tasty to condole me for having to turn some of my attention back to the real world. And, just in case all that should be too literary for me, I have a couple of new crime novels from NetGalley on my e-reader to relax with. Those for the evenings, perhaps, when my brain is not functioning quite as well as it was during the daytime hours.
If I feel so inclined then I might stop by here and make a few notes along the way, but otherwise see you the other side of the weekend.
Don’t worry, this is not going to be another post asking you to come down on one side or other of the re-reading divide. I have taken part in far too many discussions on the subject not to have realised by now that readers either do enjoy re-reading or they don’t and that you are certainly never going to persuade those that don’t of any merit in the practice. No, this is a memo to myself about what I am beginning to see as the benefits for this one particular reader of being put in a position where re-reading is necessary. If you have anything to add, then that would be great, but don’t worry if the whole concept of picking up a book for a second time is an anathema to you; just click onto another post.
I am a re-reader so I quite often find myself re-reading books that are one of a series out of choice. There are, I think, two main reasons for this. Firstly, with a year or two or, more crucially, a hundred books or two, between a new novel and the last, I often feel the need to remind myself of where the previous episode in the story left off. This is true not only of three volume fantasy epics but also much longer police procedural series where in theory each book should stand alone. Often in the case of the latter, while the main plot line is separate in each book, there is an on-going subplot that runs throughout the series and before I embark on any new adventure I need to recall just where I left all the characters at the end of the last.
The second reason I find myself re-reading these novels is also to do with the characters. I like them; I enjoy spending time with them; I wouldn’t go back for another in the series if I didn’t. And, when I’m tired or unwell or simply having one of those days, picking up a book which features a much loved friend is overwhelmingly comforting. Of course, the same can be said of those that people one-off stories, but almost inevitably when I want a book that is going to do the equivalent of wrapping me up in a cosy blanket with a large pot of tea and persuading me that all is well with the world really then it is a previously read series book to which I return.
However, having admitted to being, at times, a re-reader by choice, it is also true to say that I have been known to complain about the number of occasions when I find myself being put into the position of having to re-read a book simply because it has been selected by one or other of my book groups. Once or twice a year wouldn’t be so bad, but very often it is as frequently as once a month. In January two of the three choices fell into that category. The first February selection was another such. I read Anne Enright’s The Green Road when it was published last year and although I thought it an extremely good book it wasn’t top of my list of novels that I wanted to revisit. However, having had the opportunity to explore it a second time, knowing what was going to happen and therefore able to pay more attention to other aspects of the work, I am forced to admit that re-reading can very often pay real dividends when it comes to appreciating the nuances of a writer’s intentions.
In respect of The Green Road what I found myself doing was making sense of the book not simply as the story of one particular Irish family but rather as the ongoing narrative of the Irish nation as a whole. What triggered this was the fact that this time round I picked up on the repetition of the song O My Dark Rosaleen. During the nineteenth century, when expressions of nationalism were forbidden in Ireland, this was used as a means of making a covert patriotic statement and it is still the case that the Rosaleen of the lyric is seen as referring to the country as a whole every bit as much as it is thought to be about a single individual. I knew this when I read the book the first time, but I was so busy trying to keep the characters and the action straight in my mind that I simply didn’t pick up on it. At a second time of asking, however, I had more attention to spare for the detail and suddenly the whole book opened up for me with Enright’s mother figure, Rosaleen, becoming not only the prism through which the behaviour of the Madigan family is understood, but also a symbolic representation of the country itself and the equivocal relationship maintained between the land and its people.
If I’m honest I have to admit that it isn’t the first time that something like this has happened. Maybe I should train myself to read more carefully the first time round, but being a Bear of Very Little Brain I’m afraid that I can only take in so much information at one go. So, I must settle for recognising that, however much I complain about the fact, sometimes being asked to read a book a second time around is going to pay substantial dividends.