The Young are Desperate
A& A Farmar, €12.99
Originally published in the early 1960s, this book couples two boisterous, beautiful novels told with great compassion. The Crooked Cross tells of a village beset by drought and infested by small-mindedness, its lifeblood seeping away as the young emigrate or are exiled, depending on your perspective. An unlikely character comes to the rescue of the village, and when a fresh water supply is finally divined, life goes on, though much reduced; lessons are only ever learned the hard way. By contrast The Florentines is a mythic tale of vibrant youth as Gulliver Stone travels to an English university on a quest for knowledge. In his time there he sees a prophet banished from his home and meets a beautiful young woman in need of rescue and a blind man who clearly sees the world around him when nobody else can. Kennelly reveals the monsters and heroes in all of us.
What is it about Dracula? Published in 1897, it caught on slowly. But the Victorian horror has inspired countless films and spawned a trillion vampire knock-offs. No matter how times change, the original still packs a punch. When I read the book in the 1980s, for example, it seemed obvious that it was about Aids – except, of course, it couldn’t be. In this edition an introduction by Colm Tóibín considers how the Dublin-born writer could have conjured up such a tale. The list of possible sources is long. For starters, Stoker’s mam filled his head with Irish ghost stories. Then again, he was an Irish Protestant, assumed to be burdened by guilt and paranoia. Ah, but he lived most of his adult life in England. There he worked in a theatre (for the actor-manager Henry Irving, aka the Governor), staying up all night and rarely seeing daylight, and was dazzled and controlled by a charismatic master. Ring any bells?
Explorers of the Nile
Faber and Faber, £10.99
In the mid-19th century the source of the Nile “was still the planet’s most elusive secret”. Then, between 1856 and 1876, “an idiosyncratic group of exceptionally brave British explorers” gradually unlocked the secret. That group – Burton, Speke, Baker, Livingstone and Stanley – is the focus of Jeal’s vivid, entertaining account. They were motivated by a sense of adventure, a hunger for discovery and dreams of personal glory. Speke comes across as one of the most attractive of them, Burton as one of the least; Livingstone’s reputation is diminished slightly and Stanley’s elevated. We know the brave exploring ended in the mad imperialist “scramble” for Africa from 1880 onwards, for which Jeal is inclined to blame Baker more than the others. Ptolemy, in the second century BC, put the source of the Nile almost in the right place on his mappa mundi, but it was the travelling rather than the arrival that motivated these explorers and fascinated those at home reading about their adventures.