Mars, Venus and fiction

Staying In

Book review
Bríd Conroy

Various surveys from recent times show that fiction readers are 80 percent female. Apparently this has been the case since the 18th century. Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility was first published in 1811. Women of that era, with leisure time on their hands and having received no formal education other than the basics, began reading fiction as a way of learning about other lives and relationships.
The 20 percent of men nowadays who do read fiction prefer science fiction, thrillers and fiction written by men. I frequently ask myself in the bookshop, is this because men are socialised into not reading fiction? Novels are about relationships and characters, and it is perhaps therefore not cool for men to read them. Or is fiction just a victim of its history and really just written for women’
My two fiction choices this week perhaps offer no answer to that question, but they are, however, written by men and are mainly about men.
‘A Man Called Ove’, by Fredrik Backman, published by Hodder & Stoughton, was a New York Times Bestseller when it came out a few years ago. Apart from being interested in the whole topic of differing fiction-reading trends among men and women, I also chose this to read this book in a quest to find some more great easy reads for customers.
I laughed out loud for the first three chapters. Ove is a grumpy 59-year-old man, living alone since his wife died. For him, the right way is the only way of doing things. He doesn’t dislike people, but just can’t abide the idiotic behaviour of others.  He had been one of life’s loners until he met his wife Sonya. He rode the train with her to work, miles out of his way, there and back for three months, until he finally asked her out to dinner.
As the book progresses, Ove has flashbacks to their lives together. In a gentle and moving way, we see the growth of their love despite a tragedy that could have devastated them. Now, since her death, Ove sees no point to life. Yet life comes to meet him, and he clearly has underestimated himself – and those around him. It’s funny, it’s tragic at times and even a little bit sad, but it is a beautiful tribute to the Oves of this world, without which the world would be a much lesser place.  
‘Life Without Children’, by Roddy Doyle, published by Jonathan Cape, is a collection of short stories just released at the beginning of October. Doyle’s first book, ‘The Committments’ published in 1987, the year I went to live in London. Perhaps because it so reminded me of home, I absolutely loved it and the books that followed. Doyle captures social history so well, like in ‘The Snapper’, when the fathers of Barrytown wheel prams carrying their daughters’ children born out of wedlock, who previously would have been sent to homes.
In this collection, spanning the period from the first lockdown till now, he tells the stories of ten people whose lives stalled when Covid hit. Norms that might never have been challenged got pushed to the forefront. Marriages got examined, questions got asked. What would life without children really be like? Does denying their existence bring a freedom or some kind of release?
A man feels modern when a female doctor examines him for prostate cancer. A wife leaves her husband the day before lockdown. A man sees a woman carrying a teddy bear in a baby sling and remembers how he’d loved carrying his daughter in a sling, her face looking out to the world, her legs kicking with excitement, the weight of her against his chest.
The stories all have different characters, yet somehow each seems to be a continuation of the last, as all ten stories blend into one, beautifully written pastiche, in the way of Roddy Doyle.

Bríd Conroy and her husband Neil Paul run Tertulia – A Bookshop Like No Other at The Quay, Westport.