I took a vacation in Ireland last year, accompanied by my sister, her daughter, and my good friend Margaret. Margaret and I are both book lovers, so as you might guess, more than a few volumes were purchased (and more than a few nerves were atwitter as we considered the weight limit for our luggage). We even had the experience of purchasing the same obscure book (High Shelves & Long Counters: Stories of Irish Shops by Heike Thiele and Winifred McNulty*) independently of one another, which just goes to show why we are friends.
Now, of course, we’re working our way through our purchases; we’ve both recently finished at least one each.
I searched specifically for Dermot Healy’s novel Long Time, No See on the trip. Roddy Doyle calls Healy “Ireland’s finest living novelist” (he’s also published five volumes of poetry), and that’s no small compliment. I thoroughly enjoyed the book—about a boy at loose ends after graduating from high school—although it’s not what you would call an easy read. It’s unconventional and very much in the spirit of other unconventional Irish writers like Flann O’Brien and, yes, James Joyce. It has a very tight POV, which has stream of consciousness written all over it. There’s lots of dialogue, lots of Irish humor too—and I could hear and see every moment of it.
Here are two reviews—the Guardian’s is by Annie Proulx and the other is from the Miami Herald—for American readers. The cover you’ll see on the American edition is interesting and lovely, like something published in the 1950s, but it seems misleading: the story is set in 2006, smack-dab in the Celtic Tiger years. The cover on my Irish edition has a photo of a skinny Irish boy next to the quintessential stone fence, facing into those strong seaside winds—it’s a perfect representation of the events in the novel. Don’t let that vintage American cover throw you off.
On the opposite end of that literary spectrum are the memoirs of the Blasket Islanders, one of which Margaret purchased when we were at the Blasket Centre on the Dingle Peninsula. Here’s what she had to say about it a few days ago:
I finished reading Twenty Years A-Growing this afternoon, the memoir of Muiris O Súileabháin’s (Maurice O’Sullivan, 1904–1950) youth on the Great Blasket Island, off the Dingle Peninsula and the southwestern coast of Ireland. I sometimes judge a book by whether I am truly sorry to finish it, and if I felt inclined to read portions of it aloud to whoever would listen. It was all that, and though translated from Gaelic, it could nearly be sung, the language is so fine. No doubt life on the island was not all humming bees, dancing to the fiddle, and hauling in fish to fill the curraghs to the gunwales, but we can forgive the author for focusing on what he loved most. Sadly, the island is no longer inhabited. Highly recommended.
That pretty much says everything that needs to be said, no? And remember, these Blasket memoirs have been in print since their publication (Twenty Years A-Growing in 1933); that’s a long time and quite a recommendation.
I like to travel, and I believe reading the literature of a country enhances one’s travel experience. Or you can simply do a little armchair traveling. I’ve done a lot of that too (thank you, Frances Mayes). Have you read a book that really gave you a taste of another country? I’d love to hear about it.
* And with a foreword by Dermot Healy!
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