Paperbacks

Sat, Oct 13, 2012, 01:00

The Plantation of Ulster: The British Colonisation of the North of Ireland in the 17th Century

Jonathan Bardon

Gill & Macmillan, €16.99

Bardon devotes almost 350 pages to one of the most important developments in Irish history, the plantation of Ulster in the 17th century, but writes so engagingly that the reader is swept along by the pitiless events. The English often joke about their own country that “it’s grim up north”. Up north in Ireland is more than grim; it is grisly, brutal and bloody. Bardon appeals for a more nuanced understanding of the plantation by placing the colonisation in a wider Irish context – touching on the plantation of Munster – and shining a light on the ambitions of English and Spanish royalty. Equally important, he explores the vices and vanities of their courtiers and the effect they had on the project. The political machinations can read like a spy novel but there is no doubting the real and lasting effects of the plantation, which Bardon addresses in a concluding chapter. The planter and the Gael haven’t gone away, you know. Pól Ó Muirí

The Outlaw Album

Daniel Woodrell

Sceptre, £8.99

I know someone who, having gorged on Stephen King horrors, avoids Maine. Well, I’ve read two of Daniel Woodrell’s books (the acclaimed novel Winter’s Bone and this collection of short stories), and I now pray I’ll go to my grave without ever setting foot in the Missouri Ozarks. Woodrell’s hillbilly fiction is well wrought, but his characters are trying, what with all the rape, murder, theft, assault, battle trauma and so on. All human life is here, other than well-adjusted people simply getting on with their lives. And don’t trust the landscape: “The road is skinny and curvy, with no shoulder and deep gullies alongside, and plenty of people die alone in those severe gullies, impaled, twisted awry in their bones, bleeding out in slow drips, wondering why none of the kids in back is making a sound.” Yikes. Brilliant writing, but grim. Mary Feely

Enigma: A New Life of Charles Stewart Parnell

Paul Bew

Gill & Macmillan, €14.99

Despite being a landlord and a poor public speaker and having an extremely reserved personality, Parnell was the undisputed leader of Irish nationalism from the late 1870s to 1891. He put Ireland centre stage in British politics and convinced Gladstone, arguably Britain’s greatest 19th-century political leader, of the need to grant Ireland self-government. He is difficult for biographers because all that survives of him are his public speeches, which are tailored to suit his audiences, so he was that elusive creature, all things to all men. In this concise, clear and superbly written biography, Bew shows how Parnell united all strands of Irish nationalism and harnessed the power of the land issue to drive the political question of Home Rule forward, at the same time mastering, and even setting, the rules of the parliamentary game at Westminster. That Parnell was “a conservative, constitutional nationalist with a radical tinge” sums up Bew’s solution to the enigma, and it’s a conclusion with which it would be hard to quibble. Brian Maye

The Human Part

Kari Hotakainen, translated by Owen F Witesman

MacLehose Press, £14.99

Salme Malmikunnas, an elderly woman, meets an author with writer’s block at a book fair. After a brief conversation, the writer offers her €7,000 for her family’s story, and Salme convinces herself that she doesn’t have to reveal everything to this stranger. Besides, she and her family really need the money, and the act that has taken away her husband’s desire to speak must be dealt with, so she unwinds her story carefully. But after a while we wonder whether the story we’re reading is Salme’s or one constructed by the writer. Kari Hotakainen intimately and humorously depicts a family with a strong matriarch at its centre, albeit one who dispenses biweekly wisdom to her children via postcard while being well aware that they keep many secrets from her. Salme’s gentle, homespun philosophy, such as the idea that sorrow comes from never being able to be the same age as one’s children, lingers beautifully after this quaint and quirky book is closed. Claire Looby

The Last Man Standing

Davide Longo, translated by Silvester Mazzarella

MacLehose Press, £12.99

It’s 2025 and Italy is a failed state, for reasons that are left unexplained. Nobody knows what’s happening. Families try to escape to France or Switzerland, but rumour has it that soldiers rape and fleece the refugees. Banks won’t give depositors their money back. Sick people can’t get medicine. Outsiders are dreaded. Thieves wander the country helping themselves to other people’s stuff. The hero flees his village with two children after his home is ransacked. Unfortunately, they are captured by a gang of crazed, cocaine-addled children led by a charismatic psychopath. Their life with the gang is savage and depraved. I’m not sure I bought the ending, which has a fairy-tale quality, but the depiction of civilisation’s end is terrifyingly convincing. Most frightening of all is the knowledge that the terrible crimes described here have already occurred in real failed states. After reading this, life in Ireland under austerity seems a nonstop frolic. Mary Feely

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