When Anne Enright won the booker prize in 2007 with ‘The Gathering’, she was considered an outsider, an Irish female author, ‘who had won against all the odds’. Yet as far back as 1773, Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill wrote ‘Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire’ (‘Lament for Art O’Leary’), considered one of the greatest poems ever composed in Ireland.
Female Irish authors have indeed existed in our history but were destined to live only in the shadows of a male-dominated literary world. However, since Enright’s win in 2007, the literary world has, it appears, finally taken notice, and we have seen the emergence of the female Irish author as a unique and powerful genre all of its own.
Two authors in this genre, Eithne Shortall and Jan Carson, have just released new books entitled, respectively, ‘It could never happen here’ and ‘The Raptures’ – and both are brilliant. They are beautifully different in place and time, and characterisation; Carson’s book is set in 1993 during the Troubles, in a fictional predominantly protestant town called Ballylack, while Shortall’s is set in a small rural town called Cooney in West Cork in the modern day.
There are similarities, however. Both deal with the timeless issue of how we as communities decide who belongs and who doesn’t, who is in and who is out. They both highlight how easily we can draw lines in making those decisions as to who to include and who not to include, and how even when those lines are tested and challenged, we can be blind to the possibility of change.
Carson’s ‘The Raptures’, published by Transworld, opens on a day – June 25 – when the main character, Hannah (an eleven year old whose parents are Born-Again Christians), is at school just before the summer holidays. By chapter two, the holidays have begun, and the first child has died. A mysterious illness is striking down the children of Hannah’s class one by one.
There is an element of the fantastical, as the ghost of the first dead child appears to Hannah. The Troubles are spoken about and form a distant backdrop throughout the book. The stories of all the families of the children emerge, as do the prejudices of a small town, sheltered to some degree from the worst of the Troubles but not from division and conflict.
The pace of the story is perfect, as is the development of the characters, whose stories are told with empathy, wit and wonderful imagination.
Shortall’s ‘It Could Never Happen Here’, published by Corvus, opens with a mysterious death on the night of the school musical performed in the much-sought-after Glass Lake Primary School. The story is set to a backdrop of the Mothers of the Glass Lake unofficial Parents’ Association, whose infamous coffee mornings get to decide who is in the Musical and who is not.
Shortall then weaves her story around two brothers: a 12-year -old involved in a school scandal and a former pupil who has been involved in a tragic car accident in which his friend died and the school principal’s son was seriously injured. Many modern day issues are explored in relation to 12-year-olds having access to the internet and the challenges this poses to families and relationships.
The book’s small-town setting highlights the destructive power of gossip and the associated secrets and lies that arise from this. There are also many twists and turns in this very real, beautifully crafted and accessible story about modern-day issues, so expect to be turning the pages fast.
The Tertulia Book Club has chosen ‘It Could Never Happen Here’ as its book of the month for February, and is looking forward to welcoming its author, Eithne Shortall, to its next meeting.
Bríd Conroy and her husband Neil Paul run Tertulia – A Bookshop Like No Other at The Quay, Westport.