Sunday, 27 April 2008

The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

Faber and Faber €24.30

IN HIS rich new novel The Secret Scripture, Sebastian Barry uses the memoirs of an old lady to track the savage nation birthed in the 1920s by the successors of 1916's idealist revolutionaries.

Roseanne Clear will soon be 100, and her psychiatrist, William Grene, is examining her for the purpose of deciding whether she is suitable for 'care in the community' as the mental hospital where she has been incarcerated all her life closes.

To 'help' him, Grene has the document written by the rigid priest who committed her, Fr Aloysius Mary Gaunt - obviously modelled on John Charles McQuaid.

Roseanne, meanwhile, is secretly writing her own memoir.

Her father was - or perhaps was not - murdered by anti-Treatyites. She was - apparently - married to new TD Tom McNulty, from a family of the smiling bigots of the high-Catholic haut-bourgeois 1930s Fine Gael.

She may murdered her baby, or the child may - as the reader begins to suspect - have survived and be close to her still.

Barry's hyper-realism gives the stories - of Republicans carrying in a teenager shot dead by the Free State Army, of the gravid Roseanne stumbling across Sligo Bay clutching chains as the sea rises around her - an immediacy not achieved since the great novels of the 19th century.

Its modern setting allows him to theorise on the effect of the savagery - did the cat o' nine tails floggings and hangings of Republicans lead to the corruption of today's politicians?

It is possible - likely - that you will weep as you read this book, as well as laughing at Roseanne's mischievous dry wit.

The Secret Scripture is one of the first great novels of this century.

This Charming Man by Marian Keyes

Michael Joseph €25

DEPUTY leader of the NewIreland party and all-round smiler Paddy de Courcy has broken more hearts than he's had hang sangwidges.

Cute stylist Lola Daly wakes up to find that Paddy - her boyfriend, as far as she knew - has suddenly announced that he's about to marry.

But De Courcy isn't marrying Lola - he's marrying horse-faced Alicia (Leechy to her friends) Thornton.

Call after call - he doesn't answer. Until she leaves a message saying journalist Grace Gildea wants to interview her, when he's on like a shot, snarling.

All this is told in Marian Keyes' hilarious telegraph style, and my neighbours probably called the cops as howls of laughter greeted those first chapters.

The middle of the book goes a bit bulgy, as Keyes strays off Lola's narrative and gets serious.

Paddy's evil past is revealed by his alcoholic ex Marnie, her journo sister Grace, and horsy bride-to-be Alicia.

Party leader Dee Thornton's work to save sex slaves gives Paddy the leverage to attempt a putsch.

In Lola's country hideaway she discovers a subterranean world of rural transvestism.

There's a whole lotta lovin' going on.

This Charming Man is witty and fun, yet a departure for Keyes - with an end that is satisfyingly vengeful.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie

Jonathan Cape

A WILY mountebank hypnotises a Scottish privateer and steals the Scot's letter of passage from Queen Elizabeth.

Using it, he persuades Akbar, the Mughal emperor who first united India, that the English queen wishes an alliance.

Across the known world, in Renaissance Italy, three lads search for the magical mandrake plant, hoping that it will be brought forth by the sperm of hanged men.

One of the boys is Niccolo Machiavelli; another, Argalia, runs away to be a mercenary, and becomes a close friend of the Mughal Akbar.

Argalia brings home a dark-eyed Indian lover, who sets Florence aflame with lust.

Rushdie's latest story is full of religious and ethical theory, woven in with hot-breathed sexual descriptions and sleight-of-hand. I found it all a bit tiresome.

The descriptions are entirely sensational. Nothing can be ordinary; everything is a thrilling scéal mór an uafás with the gasping lip-smacking of someone describing a nasty traffic accident.

And in the middle of this Sargasso Sea of colour, sparkle, wit, jokes, tortures, wisdom, episodes and one new character after another, the story sinks and drowns.

The characters are the conscious stereotypes of the fairytale: the skeletal tart with the golden heart; the magician hero with a secret in his past.

There are occasional wonderful stories, though, as when the hero is saved from a rogue elephant by the besotted prostitute who has scented him with the body odour of the elephant's imperial owner.

This is a book for those who love magical realism, and feel sure that every map has a secret key.

xxx stars

Change of Heart by Jodi Picoult

Hodder & Stoughton

JESUS is back with us in the new Jodi Picoult novel. Gnostic-gospel-quoting handyman Shay Bourne kills pregnant June Nealon's policeman husband and her little girl.

When June later gives birth, her daughter, Claire, has a heart defect. If she doesn't get a heart soon, she'll die.

Shay is tried and sentenced to death. Then a civil rights lawyer contacts him, seeking to use his case to fight the death penalty.

Shay doesn't want to appeal the death, but he wants to change the sentence. He wants to die in such a way that his heart can be given to Claire - the daughter and half-sister of his two victims.

Jodi Picoult has returned to old themes and methods here. For those who have never read her books, this will be a pageturner. For those who have, it won't have many surprises.

The story is told, in typical Picoult style, by a series of characters with different angles.

Michael, the priest who is Shay's confidant, has not told Shay that he was one of the jurors who sentenced him to death.

Maggie, a plump, sad Jewish lawyer with mother problems, faces the ethical dilemma of whether helping Shay to be hanged rather than lethally injected will work towards the end of the death penalty. (Hello? No!)

Lucius, an Aids-infected killer, becomes convinced that Shay is the new Messiah, as are Michael and a riotous crowd of miracle-seekers who congregate outside the jail.

This is not Picoult's best book by a long haul - but the story rackets along nicely. A good airport book.

Xxxx stars

Monday, 7 April 2008

Berlin Poplars by Anne B Ragde

Harvill Secker

DULL, intellectual-looking cover, check. Translation from the Norwegian, check. Harrowing farm story, check.

I picked up Berlin Poplars with the quiet faith that this was going to be a really dull book.

Boy, was I wrong.

It's darkly funny, grabs you at the start and doesn't let go. Not often is a book this great.

And even at the end, when you think everything's wrapped up, there's a shock that makes you go "WOW!!" as you realise the real identity of the father despised by everyone in his family.

It starts discouragingly with an undertaker arranging the funeral of a 16-year-old suicide. Highly moral, very Christian, deeply respected by his community, the undertaker hasn't spoken to his two brothers in years.

One brother is the farmer in his fifties, at home with their 80-year-old mother and hated father. All his love and care go to his breeding sows.

The other brother is ragingly camp, a window-dresser who's escaped gloomy Norway and his family to live in uxorious luxury with his lover, a senior newspaper editor.

When the aged mother has a stroke, the three men - and the daughter the farmer has supported but never loved - turn up, and everything has to change.

Sounds awful, doesn't it? But if you want a treat, race to get this book, because it's truly heartwarming, and so, so funny.

Three Girls and their Brother by Theresa Rebeck


FAMOUS for being famous, supermodels - all legs and hair and gleaming teeth - seem more thoroughbred racehorses than human girls.

But as we've seen tragically in Ireland in recent months, all that glitz can bring a youngster into the ambit of some creepy people, and send her life reeling out of control.

For the three Heller sisters in Theresa Rebeck's wonderful first novel, their entrée into the glamourpuss life comes from being the granddaughters of a world-shaking literary critic - and having gorgeous flaming red hair.

But the glamour quickly brings them into the life of macho star 'Rex Wentworth' (now, who could that be?)

Rebeck hasn't written a novel before, but she's a playwright whose work is popular all over the US, and she's written for written for such shows as LA Law, American Dreamer, Maximum Bob, First Wave, and Third Watch. She's a TV producer, and comes garlanded with prestigious awards.

The hell with that, though - more important, she can make you laugh and cry and love her characters and want to know what happens to them next.

Anyone who's every jumped feet first into a screaming family row will recognise the touch of a master here.

The invisible father who married a Miss America runner-up and then left her with four children under 10; the ex-beauty-queen stage mom who hasn't got two brain cells to rub together; the icy survivor of abuse; the chivalrous big brother and confused youngest sister - these are all people you grow to love as you read.

What a triumph.