Books in Brief: Jan Morris’s parting thoughts and a hyper-imaginative novel

Plus: A hilarious novel by Karl MacDermott; and a fitting testament to Seamus Kelters

By Jan Morris
Faber, £14.99
When Jan Morris died at the age of 94 in November 2020 a unique voice fell silent but her publishing afterlife continued as she left behind a posthumous book. One year on, Allegorizings, an anthology of short crepuscular essays considers her conviction that many things have multiple meanings and that life is an allegory. The collection is assembled around themes of travel, with most pieces written prior to 2009. While the book may not contain much new material, it encapsulates Morris's chief delights. In its nuances and insinuations, its rhetoric and rage, and its lyrical cadences, it bears her unmistakable imprint; and one of the advantages of a posthumous book, she notes, is that she will never have to read the reviews. Paul Clements

Being Irish: 101 Views of Irish Identity
By Marie-Claire Logue (ed)
Liffey Press, €19.99
As Ireland undergoes unprecedented change, Marie-Claire Logue has invited 100 people to say what Irish identity means to them, balancing for age, gender, viewpoints, famous and not-so-famous, people at the centre and the margins. The contributors reflect the many ways of being Irish: by birth, ancestry, geography, necessity, association, culture and choice. Major themes are that there's no one sense of Irish identity, that Ireland has changed for the better since 2000 but that serious problems remain, while basic reference points are a warmth of welcome, a particular sense of humour, resilience and importance of home place. Among standout contributors are Linda Ervine, an Irish-language officer from loyalist east Belfast; and Gazan-born Yaser Alashqar, adjunct assistant-professor at TCD; while Emma DeSouza's "generosity of spirit and inclusivity" is a wonderful aspiration of Irishness. Brian Maye

Christmas at the Cross
By Maeve Murphy
Bridge House, £7
"Kings Cross was a village, a sick village, but a village none the less." Christmas at the Cross, originally serialised in The Irish Times, evokes this part of London in the turbulent Thatcher era: there are riots on the streets, crime and destitution in the flats where Blaithnaid lives. It's a volatile neighbourhood simmering with unease but also the place Blaithnaid forms life-changing relationships with the residents, who, like her, are all adrift – outsiders. She has a deep connection with Nadina, a prostitute who teaches her about resilience, Yoichi who gives lessons in karma, and David, a light towards the future. It's a story of triumph over male violence, confronting police harassment, and the strength of friendship, particularly among women. At just over 100 pages, it's a short, sharp read that packs a punch. Ruth McKee

Changing of the Guard
By Tim Doyle
Currach Books, €19.99
Jack Marrinan joined An Garda Síochána in 1953. Despite acquiring university qualifications, his way to promotion was blocked but an outlet for his undoubted talents emerged as leading spokesman for fairer treatment for new and junior recruits excluded from pay and rental accommodation increases in the early 1960s. Sacked for his involvement but eventually reinstated, he declined promotion, dedicating himself instead to the newly formed Garda Representative Association, of which he was unanimously elected general secretary. Tim Doyle skilfully tells how Marrinan's diplomacy, vision and huge energy served to modernise the force through times of upheaval such as the IRA terror campaign (including murder of gardaí) and combating gangland crime, while also dealing with walkouts from insanitary stations, campaigns for equal rights for female officers and ongoing wage disputes. Brian Maye


Midnight in London: The Anglo-Irish Treaty Crisis 1921
By Colum Kenny
Eastwood Books, €9.99
This book's main achievement is that it undermines Frank Pakenham's assertion, made in Peace by Ordeal (1935), that Arthur Griffith made "startling and secret concessions" to the British during the talks leading to the Treaty that destroyed the Irish negotiating strategy. It's impossible to overstate how influential Pakenham's book has been. Colum Kenny believes the Irish delegates were right to sign the agreement in London on the night of December 5th-6th, 1921, which was "a crucial turning-point in Irish history". He addresses all the main issues meticulously, fairly and comprehensively, one of which is why de Valera didn't lead the Irish delegation; on this Kenny agrees with Bertie Ahern's view, recently expressed in this newspaper, that de Valera's absence from the talks was "a high-risk and ultimately doomed strategy". Brian Maye

58% Cabbage
By Karl MacDermott
Black Spring Press, €12.49
Karl MacDermott, writer-in-residence in his own home, here casts a wry but sympathetic novelistic eye on family relationships, sex, friendship, job insecurity and Irish funerals. Roddy Bodkin, a 43-year-old loser fired from his job at Walking Tours Galway for telling cock-and-bull stories such as that the Modh Coinníollachs were a barbaric medieval Irish tribe, believes he can carve out a career in stand-up comedy. He attends a comedy workshop with a "forthright farmer, scribbler poet" friend who's convinced there's a sinister correlation between the growth in the number of coffee shops and comedians. Learning little from the workshop and following a break-up with his long-time girlfriend, Roddy tries London, only to return ignominiously to Galway. More hapless adventures follow as our middle-aged everyman fitfully pursues his dreams in this hilarious novel. Brian Maye

By Helen Oyeyemi
Faber, £14.99
This novel feels like you've stepped into a Wes Anderson film in your own dream. Otto and Xavier are taking a honeymoon trip on a train called The Lucky Day, accompanied by their pet mongoose, Árpád, the ticket gifted to them by Xavier's peculiar aunt. This is no ordinary train. It has bizarre and fantastical compartments: there's an upside-down carriage; a portrait gallery with a painting that watches; strange letters and signs; inexplicable happenings. As Otto and Xavier are drawn into intrigue and mystery, the train spills out the subconscious guts of their history in a kind of hypnotic trance. You are pulled along by question marks on this hallucinatory journey that teems with the absurd. Sometimes almost exhausting in its imagination, this is a book that demands your close attention – and is worth it. Ruth McKee

We Seldom Talk about the Past
By John MacKenna
New Island, €15.95
This is John MacKenna's first selected collection of short stories, drawn from four previous collections, spanning over three decades. The past that we seldom talk about, both as individuals and as a nation, is woven throughout, regardless of the silences we drape it with. Placed together, these narratives tell a deeper story of what it means to be human, and of the ways in which the world finds the means to test that humanity. Intimacy, place, loss and absence are nexus points to which MacKenna returns, always with something new to offer the reader. MacKenna writes in his introduction to this new collection that he has always thought of short stories as photographs. These moments in time are suspended for the reader to observe as minutely as they possibly can but without the context of a past or a future. What comes before or after must be left to the imagination. This is the art of the short story, and MacKenna is a master of his craft. Becky Long

Belfast Aurora
By Seamus Kelters
Merrion Press, €16.95
Seamus Kelters was a respected journalist, best known as one of the authors of the landmark book Lost Lives, which documented every death from the Troubles in Northern Ireland. He died in 2017, aged 54, from cancer. He wrote this engaging childhood memoir unaware of his illness at the time. Kelters said he wished to set down some stories for his sons, yet any reader will enjoy this compact, heartfelt book. The writing is clear-sighted, unadorned and direct, which makes it so charming. Kelters merges an innocent, childlike telling of the tale with a reporter's efficient eye for detail. Among the bombs and bullets are lovingly crafted family familiarities: good people living their best possible lives in a bad situation. A fitting testament. NJ McGarrigle