Curlew on Dollymount Strand

In front of St. Anne’s park, I found a natural flower bed where the bees were busy. Inside the park, I followed a new trail for children. Along the trail, 15 indigenous trees had been planted with plaques to show the young people what Irish native species look like. I felt like I was being led by small steps in the right direction.

While on retreat near Dollymount strand during October, I opened my window each evening.  I wanted to listen to the sounds of the sea, the wind and the birds.  No matter hard I strained my ears, I could no longer hear the call of the curlew.  This plaintive sound had accompanied our daily life as Jesuit novices forty years ago.  The curlew was our faithful companion on a lonely spiritual search.  It is amazing that the number of breeding pairs could have declined so dramatically inside a bird sanctuary. 

I have also been struck by the small numbers of bees, wasps and insects both inside and outside the house.  While the sea-gulls, magpies and crows are numerous, the smaller birds, like sparrows, robins, blue-tits, thrushes, starlings, swifts and black-birds are far less numerous than before.  At the same time some foxes and badgers have adapted to urban life.  We never saw these when we were small.  However the hedge-hogs have all but disappeared.  (During quarantine in Co. Kildare in August, I rescued one large hedge-hog with a paper cup on its head from running around in circles).   

In front of St. Anne’s park, I found a natural flower bed where the bees were busy.  Inside the park, I followed a new trail for children.  Along the trail, 15 indigenous trees had been planted with plaques to show the young people what Irish native species look like.  I felt like I was being led by small steps in the right direction.   

Solace

The two of them have fallen in love with each other despite the chaos around them and have somehow kept an inner freedom to recognize this truth and accept their baby. Aoife enters the world. Her world in anything but stable and secure but she is loved.

Nobody recommended “Solace” by Belinda McKeon to me at all nor did I ever hear anyone talking about it.  I picked it up from the bookcase at home.  What a find it has proven to be!

The novel describes the spiritual dissonance experienced by young people who have left their family farms in the Irish countryside to live in the “big smoke” (Dublin).  After graduation, these young people live a frenetic, chaotic life-style bingeing on alcohol, drugs and sex at the weekends while performing as young professionals during the week.

Nonetheless when Mark meets Joanne, it is the fact that both come from family farms in Longford that allows an intimate relationship to develop quickly.  Both young people have difficult relationships with their parents but Mark continues to help his father Tom on the farm from time to time at weekends. The contrast between the two men could not be starker.  Tom is an old-style, reserved, Irish farmer whose whole world-view is circumscribed by the land. Mark is writing a doctoral thesis at Trinity College in Dublin.  His thesis concerns a famous female novelist of the previous century who lived in the same area of fertile farmland.

Many Cambodian factory workers and students experience a similar dichotomy between their professional life in Phnom Penh and that of their former rural life in the Cambodian countryside.

In the novel, it is the stormy relationship between Mark and Tom, rather than between Mark and Joanne which provides the back-bone of the novel.  While the hedonic life-style of both Mark and Joanne at first mirrors the life-style of the characters in Sally Rooney’s novel “Ordinary People”, the concern of Joanne for the exploited Mrs. Lefroy and the sporadic commitment of Mark to work on the farm marks the two characters in this novel, as more authentic and real than first appears.  Mark’s mother, Maura understands both her husband and her son and like many Irish mothers, she acts as the go-between to facilitate their difficult communication.

This novel has two striking and unusual turning points.  When Joanne finds to her horror that she has somehow become pregnant, she makes the extraordinary decision not to abort the baby even though she is just starting out on her legal career.  Mark is so relieved.  The two of them have fallen in love with each other despite the chaos around them and have somehow kept an inner freedom to recognize this truth and accept their baby.  Aoife enters the world.  Her world in anything but stable and secure but she is loved.

The next turning point comes after Tom and Maura have reluctantly accepted the unexpected arrival of a grand-daughter and by extension an unofficial daughter-in-law.  As the family seems to be moving towards a peaceful compromise, disaster strikes in the form of a traffic accident.  To be honest, this accident arrived so suddenly eliminating two of the main characters in the story so violently, that I felt cheated and angry.  I wanted to throw the novel into the dust-bin.   However after I calmed down, I decided that sometimes life does not turn out as we expect, so I should give the story-teller the benefit of the doubt. 

 

Now it is Mark’s turn to make a surprising decision.  He refuses to let other people raise Aoife.  He will do it himself. Step by step, he learns how to do it.  Now the whole point of the novel comes into focus.  This is a story of two Irish men who cannot communicate because they do not understand their own feelings.  Like many other Irish men, they have always relied on their mothers, wives, sisters, grand-mothers, aunts or nieces to take care of them and communicate on their behalf.  Neither Mark nor Tom can cope with their grief.  Mark nearly loses his sanity by concentrating on his thesis and Tom nearly loses his farm by forgetting to care for his cattle. 

In an ironic twist, it is tiny, stubborn, feisty little Aoife who can only speak three words who becomes the focus of solace.  She insists on attention to her life pulling both men back into relationship with her and with each other.  While Aoife rages at Tom late at night in the farm-house, the friendly silence of the cattle in the neighbour’s shed enable Mark to come home to her and Tom.   Aoife saves them both from permanent grief.  She brings them back to life. 

While Mark and Joanne have explicitly rejected any religious belief or practice even at Christmas, Mark recalls at one point a legend that he heard about St. Mel during his schooldays.   When St. Mel was consecrating St. Brigid as Abbess, he used the wrong prayer.  Instead of ordaining her Abbess, Sr. Mel mistakenly ordained St. Brigid a Bishop.

Solace is a robust, unsentimental portrait of a modern Irish couple whose values may have no religious content as such but who become “other-centred” and authentic on their life journey.  In this sense, the characters become mature adults and cease to behave as self-indulgent adolescents.  In this way Belinda McKeon’s “Solace” seems to me to be a deeper and more reflective novel than Sally Rooney’s “Ordinary People”.  

Normal People and The Essex Serpent

Both novels are exquisite works of art, even if annoying. Normal People provides an almost forensic insight into the emotional lives of educated Irish young people interacting with each other as if social media is a stage on which our performances are measured. The novel rings true in this way. The Essex Serpent attempts to immerse us in Victorian world but despite the best efforts of the author, the novel seems to deal with the clash between faith and reason with a contemporary mindset.

Last month, I read two novels at the same time.  The first one – Normal People, by Irish author Sally Rooney annoyed me so much that I had to put it away for a while in favour of the second one, The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry from England.  In the end, it was interesting to read both of these novels from the perspective of Cambodia just at the time when the Brexit negotiations have stalled on the question of the Irish backstop.

 

Both novels are exquisite works of art, even if annoying.  Normal People provides an almost forensic insight into the emotional lives of educated Irish young people interacting with each other as if social media is a stage on which our performances are measured. The novel rings true in this way.  The Essex Serpent attempts to immerse us in Victorian world but despite the best efforts of the author, the novel seems to deal with the clash between faith and reason with a contemporary mindset.

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However, it seems to me that the characters in Sarah Perry’s novel are well drawn and more interesting in their differences than are the two main characters in Sally Rooney’s novel.  The love affair between Connell and Marianne provides the fil conducteur, or connecting thread, of this novel. The other characters in the book are only interesting to the extent that they contribute to the main storyline.  The love affair between Cora and William provides the fil conducteur for the Essex Serpent but most of the other characters are actually interesting people with subplots of their own that provide further insights into the society of the place and time.

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Nevertheless, after reading Normal People, I came away with the impression that social media is making Irish young people narcissistic in the sense that their whole lives seem to play out on a stage where those outside the realm of social media simply do not figure.  It is as if half the world no longer exists.  The young people could be living in a cocoon where their well-educated souls are dying of suffocation. The question of the displacement of religious faith from the centre of their lives is only addressed tangentially by references to funerals and Christmas.

 

 

In relation to the Essex Serpent, I also felt that the fascination with the past hides a desire for a lost stability and consensus that the polite conflict between faith and reason used to provide.  However, there is no sense of a benevolent Providence guiding events as is found in the novels of Dickens, the Brontés and George Eliot or indeed of a malevolent destiny guiding them as in the novels of Hardy.

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In fact, it is precisely the loss of this wider worldview that seems common to both novels and marks them out as products of the post-modern age.  A friend of mine from home recently sent me a link to a TED talk by Johann Hari on how we may be misunderstanding addiction.   His central point is that those suffering from addictions feel trapped inside a cage where the only relief is their drug.  The cage is some kind of affective isolation or abandonment where “normal” social interaction with loving others is no longer possible.  The drug is the coping mechanism that produces the artificial “high”. So to love our friends out of their addiction, we need to focus our attention on the cage itself, not the drug.

Social media is becoming perhaps an intoxicating narcotic that we ingest daily without realising the harm that we are doing to ourselves.  We do not recognise the cage in which, slowly and imperceptibly, we are choosing to live.

In the Shadow of the Banyan

Both the accounts of the Khmer family life in the city and cruel deportation to a beautiful countryside ring true. Raami’s father has communicated a love for Khmer legends and poems which then serve as the structure of meaning for Raami, while she tries to fathom what is happening to her and her family.

 

Ten days ago, our Battambang Book Club reflected on the novel “In the Shadow of the Banyan” by Vaddey Ratner.  We had an interesting and fruitful discussion on this Khmer novel in English about the tragedy that occurred in Cambodia once the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh in April 1975.

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In a curious twist of fate, we realized that this novel is not well known in Cambodia but is appreciated more for its literary quality abroad.  For example, the novel is not available in a cheap version at the Russian market in Phnom Penh unlike most other significant books on Cambodian history.

Perhaps the genre of historical fiction is not considered as reliable as autobiographical accounts in re-discovering historical truth.  This issue has come up also in my blogs on “The Memory Stones” and on “Milkman”.  In the “Shadow of the Banyan” is nonetheless a wonderful work of art for a number of reasons.

Continue reading “In the Shadow of the Banyan”