The Secret History – Donna Tartt

Continuing the Ten Favourite Books list, I re-read The Secret History by Donna Tartt, published in 1992 and which I first read in 2003. Tartt was a contemporary of Bret Easton Ellis and Jonathan Lethem at Bennington College and this novel, begun in Bennington, was her debut when it was published eight years later. (Tartt famously takes about ten years to produce each book.) It became a bestseller and has since developed a cult following.

The Secret History begins with a murder and so the mystery happens in reverse; we know who did it, but not why. The main characters are a group of Classics students at the fictional Hampden College in Vermont: Henry Winter, a rich stand-offish genius; Francis Abernathy, an equally rich and highly strung charmer; twins Charles and Camilla, inseparable, beautiful and aloof; and Bunny Corcoran, the apparent misfit of the group due to his brash and clumsy manner. Richard Papen is the narrator, a new student to the college who is immediately entranced by their group and wants desperately to belong, lying to them about his own modest background to fit in.

The students are devoted to their eccentric professor, and inspired by his teachings they decide to have a Bacchanal. After months of abortive attempts they finally succeed and what transpires that night changes their lives and leads to them committing murder. Re-reading the book, I was just as enthralled second time around, even though I remembered the plot. However I had forgotten much of the later detail, and I did feel a mounting sense of tension towards the end.

It’s a huge achievement on Tartt’s part (had to do that, sorry) to serve up the murder at the beginning of the story, ostensibly ruining the denouement, and yet still keep readers turning pages into the small hours to see why it happened. Her writing is beautifully crafted, erudite and meticulously detailed; you can see why it takes her ten years to write each book.

The Secret History was followed in 2002 by The Little Friend (which I quite enjoyed but wasn’t daft about) and last year by The Goldfinch, which is sitting in the current pile waiting to be read.

The Rose Garden – Maeve Brennan

Meave Brennan.  January 6, 1917– November 1st 1993
Maeve Brennan
6th January 1917 – 1st November 1993

 

I am now back into writing mode, having taken a wee bit of a mental holiday over the last few weeks. I’ve commenced a new project and am fairly immersed in it, so as a result at bedtime I want to read something short as I don’t really have the energy to get into something doorstop-sized. I went into Hodges Figgis a couple of weeks ago in order to stock up on some short stories and ended up with Maeve Brennan’s collection The Rose Garden and Edna O’Brien’s The Love Object. I had long wanted to read Brennan and so I started with her.

One of Ireland’s foremost short story writers, Maeve Brennan was born in Dublin in 1917 and grew up in Ranelagh. Brennan’s father was appointed as the Irish Free State’s first minister to the United States and so the family moved to Washington when Maeve was seventeen. She went on to get a degree in English and moved to New York where she began writing fashion copy for Harper’s Bazaar. She was soon noticed by the New Yorker magazine and she went to work there in 1949, first as a social diarist and then as a short story writer.

Brennan was beautiful, stylish and a glamorous fixture on the New York literary scene. She married once to St. Clair McKelway, the New Yorker’s Managing Editor, but he was not a safe bet – alcoholic, manic depressive and already divorced three times – and the marriage disintegrated after five years. Brennan remained single for the rest of her life and never had children. Towards the end she became badly alcoholic and struggled with mental health issues. She became something of a bag lady, sleeping in the toilets at the New Yorker, or occasionally staying in one of the hotels for transients on 42nd Street. She died of a heart attack aged seventy-six and is buried in Queen’s, New York.

Many of the stories in The Rose Garden are set in the upmarket New York suburb of Herbert’s Retreat, based on Sneden’s Landing where she lived with McKelway. Brennan often uses the same characters in these stories: an overbearing theatre critic called Charles Runyon, the maids working in the kitchens of the grand houses, social climbing wives and their put-upon husbands. These stories are brilliant; scathing, beautifully observed and very funny. Five of the stories are set in Dublin, including “The Holy Terror”, a study of a ladies-room attendant in a hotel, whose contemptuous attitude finally leads to her downfall.

While I haven’t yet finished the book I am interested in reading more of Brennan’s work, particularly The Springs of Affection. In common with other great short story writers, she has a way of compressing huge amounts of detail into deftly crafted sentences, making her stories rich and layered. Much can be learned!

Are You Somebody? – Nuala O’Faolain

As regular readers may remember, I raved about the documentary Nuala when it was first shown over two years ago on RTE. The film has since gone on to win many accolades at home and abroad, including awards at the Vancouver International Film Festival, Palm Springs Film Festival and the Dublin Jameson International Film Festival.

 

 

After we watched the film, my father bought a copy of O’Faolain’s memoir Are You Somebody? and when he had finished reading it he passed it on to me. It languished on my shelves for over eighteen months until I took it down a couple of Sundays ago, having nothing by my bedside to read.

Are You Somebody? (first published in 1996) tells Nuala’s story from her beginnings as one of nine children growing up in genteel poverty with her alcoholic mother and absent father, to her days as a student in Trinity and her early love affairs, through to her later days working as a producer and journalist in Dublin and living with her partner Nell McCafferty. The memoir also details attitudes to women in Ireland at the time. The only option for women in patriarchal Ireland of old was breeding and slavery in the form of marriage and housework. O’Faolain wanted more for herself. She wanted a life of the mind, she wanted to be free to have adventures, and she consciously decided not to have children in order to facilitate her dreams.

Although I knew much of this information from the documentary, it’s a whole other experience reading it direct from Nuala. Her warmth and lack of self-pity, her humility and great capacity for humour make it a very enjoyable book. I especially loved the sections where she rhapsodises about literature and its healing effect on her spirits; how she could be transported by a piece of epic poetry or a classic novel. It’s rare to read about another person’s passion for literature and O’Faolain’s enthusiasm for the written word is contagious.

Are You Somebody? is as much a mirror of the times and society O’Faolain lived in as it is a personal memoir. This particular period of Irish history filtered through O’Faolain’s inquisitive, rebellious and charismatic personality makes for a very engaging read. Highly recommended.

A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing – Eimear McBride

Even though I finished Eimear McBride’s debut novel over a week ago, I have waited to review it in order to let my thoughts settle. It’s rare that a book affects me as deeply as this did, and I’m not someone who bandies the word ‘genius’ about, but McBride is the one of the very few writers I’ve read in recent years that comes close.

A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing is the first-person narrative of an unnamed girl growing up in rural Ireland, covering her life from age two to twenty. Her mother is overbearing, a pious hypocrite who prays incessantly yet is cruel to her children, and in the opening pages the girl’s older brother (addressed as “you” in the book) is recovering from surgery for a brain tumour. Her life at home already difficult, the girl becomes the victim of abuse and, consumed by pain and self-loathing, she begins to fall apart.

Some readers may initially be put off by the stream of consciousness style, but soon you find yourself getting lost in the book, pulled along and at times almost hypnotised by McBride’s unique way with language and the poetry to be found in her sentences. The uneven rhythms, lack of punctuation, repetition and fragmented thoughts may seem chaotic but it becomes apparent that the book is meticulously crafted. The reader must slow down and pay close attention to the writing, must work hard to engage with this book, but it is all the more rewarding for doing so. And there are some flashes of humour amidst the gloom: bemoaning the weather in her hometown she observes that “Even cows drown here.”

I agree with William Nicholson’s statement in a recent Guardian interview: “I think the kind of novelist who thinks that story is a dirty word had better be a genius.” While McBride’s style is the remarkable aspect of the book, she has not ignored the importance of story and it had an emotional impact that left me in tears at the end.

A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing won the inaugural Goldsmith’s Prize 2013, which rewards “fiction that breaks the mould or opens up new possibilities for the novel.” Certainly McBride’s book does this; it’s an incredible achievement and I’m fascinated to see where her considerable talent takes her.

#readwomen2014: Will you do it?

I posted back in 2010 about the gender split in my library; I realised it was heavily in favour of men and so I tried to redress the balance, which I have done reasonably successfully so far, but it’s a task in progress! Consequently #readwomen2014 – a Twitter hashtag project started by Joanna Walsh – piqued my interest when I read about it a couple of weeks ago.

Joanna explains: “I started the Twitter hashtag #readwomen2014 after drawing some bookmark-shaped New Year’s cards showing some of my favourite female writers…When I posted photos of my cards on Twitter, a few people asked me to tweet the 250-odd names of female writers I had typed on the back…within minutes, women – and men – were adding their own favourites to the list. The meme was passed on until the list of names doubled, then trebled. This was something people cared about. It also felt as if they were having a lot of fun.”

I am wholeheartedly on board with #readwomen2014 and would urge any Multiverse readers to bear the project in mind when adding to their libraries this year.

Flavorwire have posted a handy list of fifty books by female authors, so if you want inspiration for your next book purchase, you could start there. Alternatively I’m listing some of the reviews of books that I have loved here, so you can visit my archives for some recommendations too:

I’m currently reading Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, which I intend to review on the blog soon; it’s a challenging but utterly original read so far. Look out for the hashtag #readwomen2014 for any books by female writers that I review on the Multiverse this year and let me know if you make any discoveries I should know about.