Are you John Irving in disguise? The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

I lost a weekend to John Boyne’s world of Cyril Avery – and I’m still not the better of it. I’m recovering from a book hangover of the best kind.


The story is simple but complex. It is the life of Cyril Avery, from not long before his birth, to pretty soon before his death. It is the story of being gay in Ireland and the story of social change in Ireland, told from the 1940’s through to 2015. It is an emotional roller coaster.

If you have ever read The World According to Garp, or Prayer to Owen Meany, you will understand my reference in the title of the post. Boyne is channeling Irving in the best possible way. He stands the comparison well. It is up there with the best of his work.

Boyne starts angry. The opening lines will hook you and you won’t want to be let go. Cyril’s mother is denounced from the alter, physically kicked thrown out of the church and  basically run out of town. If in the opening chapter you find yourself defending the clergy or Cyril’s grandparents, then you probably need to stop reading there. If you think gay people are sick and perverted you should probably read on as you might learn something, but you’ll probably stop reading early on.

heart opening

After leaving her home town behind, Cyril’s mother heads off to Dublin on the bus where she begins her new life, with a grand plan in place that involves a hunchbacked old nun who will deliver Cyril to his adoptive parents.

What follows is the best part of 600 pages of tears and laughter. I know I swung from anger, to joy, to despair, and back again.  The dialogue is sharp and quirky. Cyril’s upbringing is unconventional, but mostly believable, if occasionally absurd. The near misses between Cyril and his birth mother will probably frustrate you.

I read the book over the last weekend, as the Tuam Baby story was dominating headlines in Ireland. So anger at religious organisations was already in my system. The sad thing for Ireland is that many of the attitudes expressed and described in the book, you feel, are not in anyway over-hyped.There are too many scandals for the reader to not believe any of the more outrageous event or conversations that happen in the book. The strict conservative shadow of the Catholic Church reached into every part of society in Ireland. The sharpest barbs in this book are drafted in the funniest dialogue. Mary Margaret Muffet is a great character and you can easily imagine taking part in the cringe-worthy conversation towards the end with his daughter in law’s parents.


The object of Boyne’s contempt isn’t limited to the Catholic Church. Politicians and our general attitudes to women are the other principle targets. The occasional historical factual figure pops up, and some, like Charlie Haughey, get a bit of a shoeing.

Not all of the characters are drawn out or have depth to them. The modern segments aren’t maybe as good as the older ones. The book isn’t perfect, but it’s up there.

Overall I loved this book. First proper 5 star of the year. I was lucky in that I was able to just read for most of the weekend, so could get properly lost in Cyril. But in best book hangover traditions, I have no idea what to read next, although I do think I’ll be re-reading A Prayer to Owen Meany this year.


The Pillowman, not as comfortable as he sounds

I went with family members to The Gaiety Theatre in Dublin to watch Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman last week. I was expecting a bit of a detective mystery kind of thing, and ended up in some sick, twisted, dark recess of a playwright’s mind. It was great place to visit, but you probably wouldn’t want to live there!!


Reading the blurb before booking I knew there was a story writer being questioned by detectives about some murders done in the style of his stories. Hence my thought that this might be a little bit of a whodunnit, or something about social injustices (as it mentioned totalitarian state).  About 15 minutes in to the play, when there was much shouting ab0ut children being f*cked up, I was beginning to think how much darker it was than I expected, and by the interval I knew we were in real ‘wtf’ territory.

So, the storywriter writes stories that are macabre and kind of creepy. Reviews I’ve read since talk about Quentin Tarintino meeting The Grimm Brothers, so that gives you an idea what we are talking about. I’d maybe go Roald Dahl for adults (more adult than Tales of The Unexpected). More intellectual reviews will discuss the writer trying to tell us about the message of the role of a writer. “To tell a story”. That’s all a bit beyond me.

I’m not sure why its set in a totalitarian state, other than it allows the detectives to issue threats and acts of torture alongside the inevitability of execution.  I guess it removes and locations, and among the actors there is a strange mix of sometimes Irish sometimes American and sometimes something in between.


The story continues revealing some of the stories that have been copied, and we learn about the writer’s brother who has been rendered brain damaged from his torturing parents.  We learn the story of The Pillowman, a story that will send shivers up your spine. I won’t spoil it except to say he has what’s described as the saddest job in the world, and they may be right.

The first half far exceeds that second in tension, darkness and general intensity. The second half for me descended a little into the absurd.  There’s a story of a Chinaman that had audience members giggling through fingers covering cringed faces. They were probably wondering, like I was, if what looked like casual racism was necessary in the telling of the story. Then I was wondering what the f*ck that bit was about completely.

Overall, its a great play though, or at least I  thought so.  There are funny parts. It is however very dark, and uncomfortable in large parts. Anyone that may have lost a child in the past might be best advised to stay away. The youtube video below may give a better idea about reactions to the play.

I’ve been to The Beauty Queen of Leenane, by the same writer. That’s a much lighter kettle of fish. Its dark in its own way, but not by the standards of The Pillowman.

If you’re looking for something that makes you think, and shift on your seat. Then this is a great night’s ‘entertainment’. If you’re easily discomfited, that maybe seek out The Beauty Queen of Leenane which is on in the Gaiety later in a few weeks.

Recent reads, bit of football and family strife.

Couple of books read since I last posted both with their share of happy times, but ultimately filled with some regret and wondering about where it all went wrong.



I grew up supporting Leeds Utd. I began supporting them in the 1970’s when they were a bit good, but they have been mostly a team that disappoints more that they have delivered. Still though, after a few years in the old division two, they managed to get promoted, win Division One before it became the Premiership, and even got the the  Champions League Semi Final, before financial disaster saw them plummet to the third rung of the English football ladder.

Promised Land: An Northern Love Story by Anthony Clavane covers all of this and more. From the early 60’s through the glory years, to about 2014, it gives a potted history of the club’s fortunes, linking them the the fortunes of the City itself and it’s Jewish population. Its a social history linking the three together. Its an easy read, very accessible, and recommended for supporters of the football team, or people generally interested in social history.


The Green Road by Anne Enright on the other hand, is a novel about a disfunctional Irish family whose matriarch decides to sell the family home, prompting all of her children to return home from around the world for Christmas. Familiar resentments aren’t long about coming to the surface as the family get to grips with their mothers machinations.

Its a good read. Touch of melancholy. Familiar enough story for Irish readers. Set in modern years rather than the 50’s thankfully. Its well told, beautifully written and for the most part satisfying. I didn’t love it though. It didn’t grab me or engage me emotionally. I didn’t especially care what happened to the different characters. That was probably the point. Each child had something interesting going on individually. But as a family they just aren’t as interesting or don’t quite get it together.

There is a lot to like in the book. Maybe I was in the wrong headspace reading it. I admired it, and wouldn’t put anyone off it. I can’t quite explain why I didn’t love it, I just didn’t connect emotionally.

Two very different books. Lots of stories within stories, and both tracing highs and lows of individuals within a family or community. Both recommended for different readers, for different reasons.

A book that won’t rub you up the wrong way (That will make sense if you read it)

What to say about Martin John by Anakana Schofield?  It’s odd, it’s dark, it’s kind of funny in a slightly twisted way, it’s written in an unconventional style, and it’s really good.



Martin John Gaffney, is from somewhere in the West of Ireland, but he lives in London, banished there by his mother for an unnamed misdemeanour that made girl’s brothers beat him up. He’s not a nice protagonist, or maybe he is just inadequate and somewhat deserving of our sympathy. This conflict runs through the book. His mother likewise. Deserving of sympathy or contempt – not quite decided a few hours after I have finished the book.

The writing style is unconventional, but it works, for the most part. Anakana Schofield has created a character that makes the reader uncomfortable but intrigued. She writes about a subject matter that probably makes the average reader a bit more uncomfortable than a bit of good old-fashioned honest murder. She manages to make those of us with a slightly perverse sense of humour laugh from time to time (or at least find the humour in some certain situations).

If you hated The Wasp Factory, then avoid this. If you want everything spelt out for you, with a nice tidy ending, then avoid this.  Everyone else, give it a go. Its great. Really. Ok it’s twisted. Its complicated and there is a certain amount left unsaid and you need to draw some conclusions of your own.

If you’re female it might be best you don’t read it on public transport

I don’t know if its wonderful, but it will stick with you for a while. I’m off to find something lighter to read next.





Year’s last and Year’s first

The last book I read in 2015 and the first of 2016 were both Christmas gifts, and both wonderful reads in their own way.

I ended 2015 with Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick DeWitt, and started the New Year with Beatlebone by Kevin Barry.

I loved DeWItt’s previous offering, The Sisters Brothers, so was very excited to begin Undermajordomo Minor.

I’m n9781847088697.jpgot sure what I was expecting but it certainly wasn’t what I got.  The story is one of the seemingly hapless Lucien ‘Lucy’ Minor off to take up the role of Undermajordomo in the Castle Von Aux. We meet a variety of characters, all flawed, none of them terrible. The setting is a gothic, fairytale world (Princess Bride type of world maybe?)  We are treated to romance, sex, violence and absurdity in different measures, all laced with a healthy dose of pythonesque  humour.

The story is simple enough, with a few surprise along the way. I enjoyed the humour, but most particularly the use of language.

bboneBeatlebone on the other hand features real life John Lennon, in real world West of Ireland, but occassionally forays into the whimsical, the melencholy and the troubled psyche of Lennon (and author Barry) and their creative process with its doubts and struggles.

John Lennon purchased a small Island off the coast of Mayo in the West of Ireland.  The simple premise of the book is that he wants to travel to his Island in order to spend a few days alone.

Very different books, but with some similarities, in so much as they both have humour, and much of that humour stems from the writing and use of language more than the situations.  Undermajordomo Minor is the lighter book, with more laugh out loud moments and comic moments.  Beatlebone has a melancholic undercurrent, but the humuor comes from use of words, observations, or acerbic dialogue.

“Do you have a reservation? she says.

I have severe ones, he says, but I need a room”

Both are short enough novels, in fact such is the structure of Beatlebone it could be a novella.  Short as Beatlebone is, it demands to be read slowly. I get the impression that Barry has worked carefully on each word in each sentence.  I loved all of the conversation between John and the wise Cornelius O’Grady.

If you’re looking for a biography of John Lennon, you’ll be disappointed. If you are looking for an insight into the turmoil that an artist might experience during fallow periods, then look no further.


Christmas brought me some wonderful options to finish my reading year, and begin my new one. I hope the rest of my reading year gives me as much pleasure. The bar has been set high.