Books in brief: From ‘dissembling minx’ Jane Austen to jailed Markiewicz

Plus: Stephen Fry’s tales of Greek mortals and Tom Perrotta’s very enjoyable latest

A story narrated by a sister-in-law of Jane Austen appears in Sophia Hillan’s collection The Cocktail Hour. Image: Leemage Collection/Universal Images Group

A story narrated by a sister-in-law of Jane Austen appears in Sophia Hillan’s collection The Cocktail Hour. Image: Leemage Collection/Universal Images Group

 

The Cocktail Hour

by Sophia Hillan, Arlen House, £15
This is a short-story collection to savour, from a practitioner of the genre at its best. A worn-out Scott Fitzgerald figures in A Princeton Man, victim of the shallow beau monde where “the predatory and the hunted moved, as in a dance”. Jane Austen figures too in Portrait of Elizabeth, a monologue by a sister-in-law who regards her as a “dissembling minx” behaving above her station. Roses is a poignant and delicate story of love, betrayal, forgiveness and the pain of loss. The pain of loss also suffuses Anna, By the River, in this case the deep loss felt by a young girl for her dead father. The Depths of the Sea has at its centre a crime of passion with a lovely twist at its ending. In Fetch, a little boy sees the supernatural double of his grandfather on the day he dies, while the troubled world of the Easter Rising and the Great War hovers in the background. Love in all its forms, twists and turns dominates in this masterful collection.

Markievicz: Prison Letters & Rebel Writings

Edited by Lindie Naughton, Merrion Press, €19.95
“I got lovely roses too yesterday, and such heaps of strawberries and cream too. Friends are so good to me. If you want to be fully appreciated in Ireland, go to jail!” declared Constance Markievicz from Cork Gaol in 1919. The letter was to her sister Eva – recipient of most of the correspondence in this engaging collection – and highlights Markievicz’s natural fortitude and defiance in her correspondence more than any ideas of a cushy incarceration. The heroine of the Easter Rising is usually chipper in these writings, even in the grim surroundings of Holloway Prison or during her time “on the run”. Letters are often laced with black humour: “Have you done any more horoscopes lately? And shall I be hung in the end?”

These writings may not have the force of ideas of a James Connolly or the flair of Oscar Wilde’s prison pen, yet they paint an honest picture of Markievicz. At times they are gossipy (something she admitted a fondness for) or banal (carpet treatment), but they possess plenty of historical value, too.

Mrs Fletcher

By Tom Perrotta, Corsair, £8.99
American novelist Tom Perrotta’s latest is a super-enjoyable ride through the by turns impulsive and caution-beset lives of divorced empty-nester Eve Fletcher, disappointing (and disappointed) son Brendan, lonely colleague Amanda, well-meaning college student Amber, teenage bullying victim Julian and transwoman professor Margo – though it is only the frighteningly unaware Brendan who is afforded the exposure of first-person narration.

In this concise comedy of love and ethics, Perrotta repeats his knack for being at once generous and unsparing with his characters, who are more than the types they represent even when they fear themselves that they are not.

Explicit in its desire to explore how porn culture and identity politics co-exist in suburban lives, Mrs Fletcher never once makes this a chore. It is no surprise, then, that after screen adaptations of Perrotta’s previous novels Election, Little Children and The Leftovers, it is now destined for a HBO television series with Kathryn Hahn perfectly cast in the title role.

The Little Snake

By AL Kennedy, Canongate, £9.99
Written to mark the 75th anniversary of the publication of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s children’s classic The Little Prince, AL Kennedy’s The Little Snake is a modern fable with a serious message. This short, wry and wise book takes one character from Saint-Exupéry’s classic, the small gold snake, whom Kennedy names Lanmo. After Lanmo meets a little girl, Mary, the city that was their home is transformed into a place of violence. Bombs begin to drop and war creeps in. Probing what it means to be human, to be empathetic, Kennedy’s story follows Lanmo and Mary as they form an intimate bond. Lanmo’s puzzled curiosity at the indignities and inequalities of human life, and Mary’s pure hope, combine in this novella into a bitter-sweet and urgent fable that is both desperately sad and always beautiful. A children’s story, but an adult’s story too, The Little Snake is a short but provoking tale, skilfully written and speaking always in the face of injustice.

The Failing Heart

Eoghan Smith, Dedalus Books, £9.99
Reading The Failing Heart is like taking a trip; part escape into another consciousness, part suffocating delusion. The story – or rather the scaffolding upon which Smith displays elegant philosophical architecture – follows a young scholar whose mother has just died. Estranged from his father after stealing his money, hounded by the ominous figure of his landlord, and oppressed with images of his ex-lover’s impending labour, he wanders into an existential purgatory.

“All these open mouths, living or dead, they never shut up.” Death is everywhere, through the needs and revulsions of the body, its smells, secretions, drives. The narrative circles in on itself in an ever-decreasing gyre, examining ancient and modern ideas about existence, subjecting philosophical scholarship itself to a sardonic inquiry using its own tools of scrutiny.

The writing is self-aware and wry, with rare flashes of humour amid a claustrophobic search for meaning and desire to confess. Time expands and contracts; it is unclear what is real, what is internalised: at the end of this brief novel there is the sensation of having witnessed the dark dream of a stranger.

Heroes

Stephen Fry, Michael Joseph, £14.99
Stephen Fry’s Mythos told of the Greek gods and this companion book carries the narrative forward to tell of the adventures of famous Greek mortals, all of whom were directly or indirectly descended from the gods. Perseus, Heracles, Bellerophon, Orpheus, Jason, Atalanta, Oedipus and Theseus are the “heroes” in question and they interact with cunning and vindictive gods and face and overcome enormous challenges and dangers as they battle to rid the world of destructive and hideous creatures and monsters. These heroes are both superhuman in their strength, endurance and achievements and very human in their petulance, jealousy and vindictiveness. Their stories contain lessons for us all. Like Heracles, we can overcome major obstacles but hurt those we love with our uncontrolled anger; like Oedipus, we can want to see and know much more than is good for us; like Orpheus, we can do things unthinkingly and end up paying the price. To readers of a certain age, these stories will be very familiar, but Fry introduces them to a new generation with wit and colour.

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