Kevin on Gavin: One Irish writer reviews another

this-is-the-way-gavin-corbettKevin Barry, one of the rising stars of the Irish literary scene, had his say on another of the younger crop of Irish writers, Gavin Corbett, in the pages of the Guardian this morning.

I’ve always held a slight fascination for writers’ reviews of other writers – the thoughts of a critic might be easily (or perhaps more accurately, more easily) dismissed but those of a fellow writer, especially one you might admire, must be almost impossible to ignore.

This, I imagine, is especially true if you’re not yet on an established footing. The John Banville excoriation of Ian McEwan a few years back, when he described McEwan’s Saturday as “a dismayingly bad book”, springs to mind, but the fact of the matter was that Banville and McEwan – one a Booker Prize winner, the other on his way to the same award a few months after writing that review – were already on solid ground as novelists of renown. While a different hue of light may have shone on them as a result, their reputations were unlikely to suffer catastrophically.

It’s a different story when you’re waiting for the big breakthrough, when a positive or a negative review from a respected contemporary might have make-or-break possibilities for an entire career.

Corbett, then, could be forgiven if he heaved a sigh of relief this morning; Barry’s review of the book – about a Traveller called Anthony Sonaghan told in first person idiosyncratic local dialect – is, on the whole, a positive one.

A sly and lovely humour dominates … The streets of contemporary Dublin, somehow both drab and gaudy, are sketched with great relish and skill … This is memorable work from a gifted writer whose next moves we should await with very keen interest

You can read Kevin Barry’s review of Gavin Corbett’s new novel, This Is The Way, here.

This Is The Way is published by 4th Estate

Update: Gavin Corbett has written about the origins of the narrative voice over on the 4th Estate blog

Four on Friday (on Saturday): Mrs Wilde, Molly McCloskey, Irish love poetry and John Boyne’s super-stardom


Molly McCloskey (picture via Malachi O’Doherty)

Only 24 hours late with this (which doesn’t exactly bode well, considering it’s just the second edition of Four on Friday). In this week’s snippets of stuff from around the web related to Irish writing, Oscar Wilde’s wife, Molly McCloskey, Irish love poetry and globe-trotting John Boyne.

Molly McCloskey may feel like something of an outsider in Ireland but she has lived here off and on for almost 25 years, and her relationship with the country forms the basis of her Dublin Review essay originally published last summer (but which I only got to this week):

My relationship with Ireland … could broadly be described as a progression from trying desperately to stay to trying halfheartedly to leave. There were stints living abroad, in places that never quite took. Lives were imagined or planned or attempted in London, Macedonia, Nairobi, Sri Lanka, Barcelona, Paris. Sometimes the pull was work, once or twice it was love; as often it was just the nagging feeling that my real life was elsewhere, waiting to begin. Nowhere felt more or less arbitrary than anywhere else. Ireland, after all, had been completely arbitrary, and at some point I began to believe that I would never know what it meant to me unless and until I left it.

At more than 7,500 words “An Accidental Immigrant” is a lengthy read but setting aside some time to it is almost certain to be greatly rewarded.

It touches on Henry James, phone sex, the Dublin floods of 2011 and (scything reference to) Rachel Allen as part of a personal investigation into McCloskey’s place in the world, and it’s one of the best pieces of non-fiction narrative about Ireland’s boom and bust you’re likely to read.

“An Accidental Immigrant” can be read at the Dublin Review website here

Micheal O’Siadhail on love

I knew the blog would be good for something.

I hadn’t read anything by Micheal O’Siadhail before Thursday, when a Valentine’s Day post asked the slightly mischievous question of whether Irish writers were any good at writing about love.

I still think it’s something that doesn’t come naturally to us (although you’d be well within your rights to raise an objection on grounds of generalisation and ask whether any type of writing comes naturally to any nationality), but there’s no doubt that O’Siadhail’s “Matins For You” hits the right notes.

A founder member of Aosdána and with 14 collections of poetry behind him over the past 25 years, O’Siadhail was suggested by Nuala Ní Chonchúir in the comments to Thursday’s blog.

In case you missed that it’s well worth pointing you in the direction of here. “Matins For You” is a poem brilliant on bliss. I’ve read it half a dozen times now and on each occasion I have a new favourite line.

New review of Constance Wilde biography

This week I read, in the pages of Washington D.C. magazine The Weekly Standard, a new review by Elizabeth Powers of a recent book about the wife of Oscar Wilde.

One diarist of the time wrote that Constance

is infinitely more interesting than the Elephant himself … one never gets tired of looking at the lovely Fairy who guards and guides him.

Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde, by Franny Moyle, was published two years ago, and would appear to be a hugely informative biography of Mrs Oscar Wilde, who died at the age of 39 after an unseemly divorce. Reflected in the book is lots more information about the life of Wilde himself. You can read a similarly gushing Guardian review here.

johnboyneJohn Boyne’s rising star

Finally this week, well done to John Boyne, whose stock continues to rise with each new book winning him a new legion of fans. Boyne’s ability to move seamlessly between genres and reading demographics is to be highly commended. He’s also prolific, with ten novels in 12 years including five (three for adults, two for younger readers) since the runaway success of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas in 2006.

Anyone who follows Boyne on Twitter or has connected with him in Facebook will see exactly how far and wide his success has taken him (although it must be said and double-underlined that never is there any hint of conceit or entitlement in his bulletins from abroad).

Boyne – who’s still just 41, lest we forget – has a new diary entry in Lancaster County in Pennsylvania in April, when he will speak at a Library Luncheon. Tickets cost $40. Welcome to the world of the literary superstars.

On Valentine’s Day, the literature of love and Seamus Heaney’s favourite love poem

seamus_heaneyWell, it is Valentine’s Day, so forgive the blog a little foray into the literature of love.

To be honest, this blogger has never had much of an inclination towards romantic writing. Maybe the whole thing has been tainted by Mills and Boon and the recent turn towards so-called Mummy Porn, which gave the beleaguered bookselling industry a shot in the arm last year by dominating the bestsellers’ lists, but whose influence on long term reading habits is likely to be minimal.

Where I did enjoy romance was in the pastorals of Wordsworth – Tintern Abbey, although it may have had more to do with land than love, is possibly the best love poem I’ve ever read. Keats’s “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” was delightful, but Shelley and Byron are a little tainted by the faithlessness of their biographies (although the relationship between fidelity and love is a whole other discussion) and the breathless sonnets of Shakespeare could be a little hard to take.

In latter decades much of the best love writing has taken place in song. It’s all subjective of course, but I’m not sure there’s a better relatively recent piece of romantic writing than Clifford T Ward’s Home Thoughts from Abroad, itself a riff on a Robert Browning poem about fields and thrushes.

Writing about love is a notoriously difficult thing to do well, of course. Many years have passed since the tempestuous affair of Henry Miller and Anais Nin created some intense and powerful love writing; anything bordering on sensual these days is as likely to end up competing for The Bad Sex Award.

As far as Irish love writing goes, I’m not sure I can come up with solid examples that could stand up against anything international. It seems we might do other things – place (both grounded and restless), character, introversion, narrative voice – much better than something like love and romantic openness. A line from the Scorsese film The Departed springs to mind – I think it was Matt Damon’s character, summing up his second-generation Irish father: “He’s Irish; he’ll put up with something being wrong for the rest of his life.”

Anyway, this has been a circuitous route to Seamus Heaney’s favourite love poem, written by Sir Thomas Wyatt in the 16th century, which was included in a Guardian piece first published last year.


William Wordsworth once wrote that he liked the sonnet because he was happy with the formal limits it imposed. He was ready to be “bound / Within the sonnet’s scanty plot of ground”. The great thing about this Thomas Wyatt sonnet, on the other hand, is the way the surge of desire seems to push against the form that “bounds” it, even as it obeys the requirements – 14 lines, octave and sestet, proper Petrarchan rhyme scheme.

“Whoso list to hunt” (an adaptation of a sonnet in Italian by Petrarch) is an allegory, but any suggestion of indirection or emotional distancing which that word contains is banished by the sheer pace and passion of the lines. The deer in the royal park, marked for the king (“Don’t touch me, I belong to Caesar”), has long been taken as a figure for Anne Boleyn, and Wyatt assumed to have been the lover/hunter denied all access to her. It is a great love poem because of its rhythmic energy, its syntactical drive, the way the bitter truths of denial and exclusion are transformed – transformed by creative stamina into a work that is lifted above bitterness by the artist’s joy in finding the right trope for his predicament. In a way, the final line retells the whole story: a wildness has been tamed in the writing, but it is the wildness that has given the poem its staying power.

“Whoso List to Hunt” by Sir Thomas Wyatt

Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, alas, I may no more;
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
I am of them that furthest come behind.
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore
Fainting I follow; I leave off therefore,
Since in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I, may spend his time in vain.
And graven with diamonds in letters plain,
There is written her fair neck round about,
“Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am,
And wild for to hold though I seem tame.”

A couple of great lines there:

“In a net I seek to hold the wind.”
“Wild for to hold though I seem tame.”

So two questions for anyone who’s made it all the way to here (thanks, by the way):

What’s your favorite piece of love writing?

And which Irish writers do it really well?

Four on Friday … Including Seamus Heaney, Lucy Caldwell and Nuala Ní Chonchúir

In the first instalment of a new (hopefully) weekly selection of (mostly) Irish writing-related reading from around the web: Seamus Heaney’s favourite places, Lucy Caldwell on double lives, Nuala Ni Chonchuir’s novel fear and some bookclub tips.

The seven wonders of Seamus Heaney’s world

Not being a steadfast reader of The Economist, I didn’t know much about Intelligent Life magazine before this piece appeared on my radar over the past couple of days. Intelligent Life comes from that stable every two months, promising to take an Economist-like view on non-economic matters.

Extra marks for guessing which of Seamus Heaney’s seven wonders – boxed off cleverly by journey, beach, hotel, city, building, view and work of art – is in Ireland.

Lucy Caldwell’s latest


The young Belfast writer’s third novel, All the Beggars Riding, is published by Faber, and it received a major shunt towards the bestsellers’ lists with the announcement that it is the Belfast choice for “One City One Book” in 2013.

Dublin memoirist, novelist and playwright Peter Sheridan is one of the influences – alongside architect Louis Kahn and author Blake Morrison – for All the Beggars Riding, a study of infidelity and secrecy over a couple of generations.

Read the Lucy Caldwell interview over at Faber’s The Thought Fox blog

Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s fear

It’s brave of any writer to give updates of works in progress, which is exactly what Nuala Ní Chonchúir did on her Women Rule Writer blog this week.

Describing a “serious novel-wobble” during the course of her current project, a historical novel set in the 19th century, she gave a glimpse of the novelist’s perennial state of mind by relaying a snippet of a recent conversation with her contemporary Claire Kilroy:

Me: “I’m at The Fear stage.”

Claire: “Is there any other stage in novel writing?”

There were 27 comments at the time of writing this, so the post clearly struck a chord with lots of readers and writers out there. At the very least, it will make most of those who read it keep an eye out for said Nuala Ní Chonchúir historical novel when it lands on bookshelves at some as yet unspecified date in the future.

Book-club tips

Though still in the process of sifting through the gold from the groan when it comes to bookish online resources, a few decent pieces have come my way on Book Riot over the past few weeks. This one – tips for running a successful book club – might not have been the most earth-shattering, but it goes in here to allow for another little pointer to the blog’s first ever book club gathering, which is dipping its toe in the unknown waters of online meet-ups this month.

If you’d still like to get involved in the first ever Irish Writing Blog book club virtual get-together – note to self: think of a snappier name – then get your hands on a copy of Mary Costello’s The China Factory, drop me a line at and clear a couple of hours for an online back-and-forth after 9pm (Irish time) on Monday, February 25th.


P.S. You can follow the blog via email or on Twitter – the links and buttons are on the right hand side of this page (or, if you’re reading on mobile, they should be available below this post).

Colum McCann’s lingering appeal to the senses

When you’re reading a book or trying to write creatively yourself, it can be difficult to put a finger on the why.

Why is a particular book is good? Why are some great, remaining locked in the consciousness years after you’ve finished reading them?

Why do others, despite well-constructed sentences and characters and plots, just not work?

It’s impossible to know why any of this is. Why very occasionally magic happens. I once read an interview with Ian McEwan (which I can’t for the life of me find now) where he said real inspiration strikes about once a year, and that sustains him through all the rest of his workaday struggles.


So I don’t know, but I suspect that appealing to the non-visual senses is vital to any piece of creative writing. You can describe something in minute and perfect detail, but if it doesn’t come to life it will fail on the page. Descriptive passages often focus on how something looks, but if how that something feels or sounds or smells isn’t conveyed then it’s liable to fall flat.

This thought hit me with force on the first page of Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, which I’ve picked up this week, three years after everyone else.

Take the paragraph below as an example of expert scene-setting. We already know from the first paragraphs, from “Lenny Bruce gag”, “construction worker” and “up there, at the height of one hundred and ten stories”, that we’re almost certainly in New York. (The place-names in the opening line meant nothing to me, but they would similarly have established location for many readers.)

And then comes the headrush of how stuff sounds:

Around the watchers, the city still made its everyday noises. Car horns. Garbage trucks. Ferry whistles. The thrum of the subway. The M22 bus pulled in against the sidewalk, braked, sighed down into a pothole. A flying chocolate wrapper touched against a fire hydrant. Taxi doors slammed. Bits of trash sparred in the darkest reaches of the alleyways. Sneakers found their sweetspots. The leather of briefcases rubbed against trouserlegs. A few umbrella tips clinked against the pavement. Revolving doors pushed quarters of conversation out into the street.

The inventive verbs and nouns – a bus sighs, rubbish spars, you hear quarters of conversation – bring newness to the sounds. It’s transportingly brilliant.

I’m only on page 30 now. Don’t tell me how it spins.

And the inaugural blog book club choice is…

Last weekend I put the call out to see who might be interested in a monthly, Irish-specific, mostly fiction-specific (with some poetry every now and then) online book club.

With the initial quorum set at three to get things up and running, I’m happy to say that the target has been met, with the possibility of a couple of others joining the group during February ahead of a provisional discussion time and date of 9pm on Monday, February 25th.

I must say I’m excited by the whole thing. I’ve been delighted with the responses, a couple from people I’m aware of and whose work I admire and respect, and others who I have become acquainted with for the first time over the past seven days, and with whom I’m really looking forward to chatting about Irish books over the next few weeks and months.

If there is a cover-all description for all those who expressed an interest over the past few days – and I’m not one who usually goes in for generalisations – it’s that they think about books and writing and reading more than the casual reader, or, dare I suggest, the typical book club member. Although it wasn’t stipulated, this might well be on the road to becoming a reading club for writers, a collective of those who read not only for enjoyment or distraction or a decent conversation topic, but because reading and writing are something vital. (Every so often a line from Dylan Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” springs to mind: “[Miss Prothero] looked at the three tall firemen in their shining helmets, standing among the smoke and cinders and dissolving snowballs, and she said, ‘Would you like anything to read?’”)

That diversion safely negotiated, thanks to all those who got in touch, and if this is the first occasion you’ve found yourself on these pages then you might still have time to get involved.

china-factory With all that out of the way, I’m please to say our first book club choice is The China Factory, a short story collection by Mary Costello which was published by The Stinging Fly Press last year and nominated for the Guardian First Book award.

Going back to the first toe-in-the-water post about a prospective book club, the criteria for selection remain unchanged – book club choices must be written by an Irish writer (living or dead) or published by an Irish publisher – but the discussion mechanism has altered slightly: we won’t be going down the route of a Google+ Hangout chat on the last Monday of the month, so we’ll instead find another way of getting together virtually for a couple of hours in three weeks’ time. About which more soon.

The China Factory can be purchased directly from The Stinging Fly’s website, or good local bookstores. Welcome aboard, and I look forward to catching up with you later in the month.


(P.S. If anyone has suggestions for a March book club selection please add a comment below or email