Review: Mount Merrion, by Justin Quinn

justin-quinn-mount-merrionJustin Quinn’s debut novel charts a route through the last half-century of Ireland’s history. The undertaking is ambitious, maybe too ambitious.

Quinn, a poet with six published collections over the past 15 years, was born in Dublin and studied at Trinity College Dublin but has been resident in Prague for a number of years, and that journey lends a lot to Mount Merrion. While a former Government minister once famously said that Ireland is closer to Boston than Berlin, Mount Merrion makes several shifts towards central and eastern Europe – one chapter takes place almost exclusively in the East Germany and Yugoslavia of 1968, another stand-out series moves through the Berlin of the mid-90s, a Celtic Tiger cub in the latter stages has learnt his trade in Budapest and there is a peripheral Lithuanian love interest.

The story centres on the Boyle family, principally civil servant turned property developer Declan, beginning with a prolonged period of convalescence in a newly-built hospital in Galway in 1959 to his period in the media spotlight of a corruption scandal in the Dublin of 2002.

Attempting to shine a light at a vast swathe of Irish history from the 1950s until the Celtic Tiger is an ambitious undertaking and probably requires a wider canvas than the slight 260 pages of the trade paperback here.

The novel’s structure is at the root of its problems. The book is bewilderingly episodic, a series of snapshots cataloguing important moments in the lives of Declan Boyle, his wife Sinéad and their children Owen and Issie, for whom home is, apart from an industry-building spell in Connemara, the leafier avenues of southside Dublin.

The novel is divided into six chapters (dated accordingly: 1959, 1968, 1974, 1987, 1995 and 2002), each surrounding a particular moment – of crisis or coming-of-age – in their lives.

The trouble is that whenever the narrative begins to gather pace, it is halted abruptly and the action shifted forward half a generation, where readers must familiarise themselves afresh with the characters and their changed circumstances. So the Declan Boyle who spends two months in a hospital bed in his 20s bears only a passing resemblance to the one who lands a major coup behind Communist lines nine years later and to the grandfather figure who finds himself the butt of the nation’s growing anger after the turn of the millennium.

Such is life, of course. Which of us can claim to be the same person in our 60s as we were coming out of school more than four decades previously? Yet the thrust of every successful epic depends on the forging of recognisable seams across every major character and every generational shift in the narrative. On that count Mount Merrion falters, and that failing is impossible to overcome.

Still, there is plenty that is worthwhile. Pre-telephone-era Connemara, the scenes in East Berlin and the reminiscences of Nazism are potent. A party of movers and shakers in 1960s Ireland is well observed and the Boston 1995 sequence stands out: if Lucy Jordan, at the age of 37, famously faced up to the prospect of never driving through Paris in a sports car with the warm wind in her hair, Issie Boyle did not have to countenance that particular disappointment after a remarkable nighttime tour of Berlin.

A family tragedy is well drawn and, although the hurt inevitably dissipates through the passage of time, it doesn’t lose its power. The interior monologues of Declan and Sinéad as they recall their loved one in the final chapter are exceptionally moving.

The heady hedonism of early Celtic Tiger Ireland, characterised by tyro developer Mark Turpin and his beau, up-and-coming banker Verry McVeigh, is also expertly captured. One sex scene veined by fantasies about property goes closer to summing up the primeval instincts of developers and bankers which brought the country to crisis than possibly anything else in post-bust Irish literature.

On the whole, it is a promising debut, one that will undoubtedly appeal to a generous cohort of the southside milieu who will recognise schools rugby, Blackrock markets, Dun Laoghaire peer and the bars of Baggot Street and the Shelbourne Hotel.

One can’t help feel, though, that given Quinn’s background, we might have expected a little more lyricism, more magic, more poetry than we get in Mount Merrion.

Mount Merrion is published by Penguin Ireland and available from bookshops nationwide

Five of the best essays on the late, great Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney (Photo: Jon Parker Lee)

Seamus Heaney (Photo: Jon Parker Lee)

There has been no shortage of published work on Seamus Heaney over the last few days. Here are some of the best I’ve read – please feel free to let me know of any other must-read reflections on the life, work and legacy of Seamus Heaney in the comments.

Belinda McKeon (Picture: Hiroki Kobayashi)

Belinda McKeon (Picture: Hiroki Kobayashi)

Belinda McKeon (The Paris Review)

“He was loved. Beloved. Whether he was met with as a name on a page, or as a voice from a podium, or as a cherished friend or fellow artist, Seamus Heaney moved into the lives of those who encountered him—those countless lives—and he made a difference that will matter forevermore. The difference, for many, was poetry itself. The difference is in those lines, the way they come to mind at moments of worry, or of beauty, or of heartache and of sorrow; today they come to mind like prayers learned in childhood, his lines, so many of them, rushing in as breath is caught, as mind reels and whirls.”

Read Belinda McKeon’s personal essay on Seamus Heaney in The Paris Review here

Roy Foster (The Guardian)

“Whereas Yeats’s shadow was seen, by some of his younger contemporaries at least, as blotting out the sun and stunting the growth of the surrounding forest, Heaney’s great presence let in the light.”

Read Roy Foster on Seamus Heaney in the Guardian here

Colm Tóibín (The Guardian)

“In a time of burnings and bombings he used poetry to offer an alternative world; he gave example by his seriousness, his honesty, the tact in his phrasing, the care with language, the thoughtfulness, the scrupulousness.

“He carried his fame lightly, easily. He preferred shadow to light; he preferred the half-said, careful, ambiguous remark to the big statement; he liked the slow smile rather than the easy laugh. He enjoyed company, but I always felt he had one eye on the door, and would be happy when the night was over and he could go home.”

Read Colm Tóibín’s article on Seamus Heaney in the Guardian here

Fintan O’Toole on contradictions, confusion and uncertainty

“What Heaney articulated, above all, was the way in which – in the words of his friend Brian Friel – confusion need not be an ignoble condition. He grew up in a literally divided landscape – ‘the lines of sectarian antagonism and affiliation’, he wrote, ‘followed the boundaries of the land’ — and lived through the hopes and horrors of the Troubles. He was drawn to both Irish and English poetic traditions. He also lived through the death of the ancient rural world into which he was born and the emergence of a globalised modern Ireland. He struggled with contradictions, paradoxes, conflicting impulses. His genius lay in his ability to hover between them, to give each side of a political or emotional equation its full weight and proper due without becoming the prisoner of either.”

Read Fintan O’Toole’s piece on Seamus Heaney in The Irish Times here

Seamus Deane on school-days with Heaney in Derry

Seamus Deane and Seamus Heaney (Picture: Maccana)

Seamus Deane and Seamus Heaney (Picture: Maccana)

Note: Deane’s piece was published in The New Yorker (March 2000), and re-linked by The New Yorker blog this weekend. It’s a phenomenal, luminous essay on growing up in Derry in the 1950s.

“Seamus Heaney and I met at St. Columb’s College, in 1950, when he was eleven years old and I was ten. St. Columb’s College is a diocesan grammar school for boys in the city of Derry (as we called it), or Londonderry (as the official title had it)…

“The school was divided between day boys and boarders. I was a day boy; I came from the city. Boarders came from the city’s hinterland, County Derry and County Donegal. The countryside that the boarders came from seemed to the day boys strange, and indicated a wildness. Beyond the city, all civility ceased. Heaney was a boarder from Bellaghy, which was near Swatragh and Maghera and Magherafelt, on the far side of the mountain range. The names of those places, with their ‘gh’s squatting on wide vowels, seemed designed for the boarders’ accents. Boarders talked so slowly that sometimes you thought a sentence had been spoken when in fact only a place-name had been…

“I remember (with some embarrassment) an issue of the English Department student magazine, Gorgon, in which I published a long, shapeless poem, full of vacuous profundities, based on Allen Tate’s ‘Ode to the Confederate Dead’, and in which Heaney had a short, shapely poem entitled ‘Aran’: it was as modest as mine was pretentious, as precise as mine was vague. [Lecturer] Laurence Lerner asked me if I had noticed Heaney’s poem. I had, but I wanted to hear what Lerner had to say about mine. Of course, that was what he had to say about mine, but I was too dumb to realize it then.

The microfiche of the full Seamus Deane New Yorker essay on Seamus Heaney is here

If you’ve read any brilliant and insightful pieces on Seamus Heaney, please let me know in the comments below.