Books in brief: Mary Lavin’s enduring stories and the darkness of Molly Martens

Also in the mix: Danny Morrison’s updated IRA novel; and a creepy tale by Sue Rainsford

Mary Lavin: inimitable and gifted

Mary Lavin: inimitable and gifted


The Becker Wives and Other Stories

Mary Lavin

New Island, €11.95

Four long stories comprise this collection from the inimitable and gifted Mary Lavin. The title story satirises the foibles, pretensions and insecurities of a middle-class family in a substantial Irish town, but the barbed humour develops into a disturbing insight into mental illness by story’s end. In The Joy-Ride, two butlers head off for a day out when their employer goes away but their absence ends in disaster for their place of employment and themselves. A Happy Death tells of the disintegration of a once-happy marriage as youthful hopes give way to the disappointments of social circumstances, misunderstandings and failure to communicate. Magenta is mainly an amusing story about two elderly housemaids, caretakers of a big house where they’ve lived so long that they feel and sometimes behave as if they own it, and a local girl who cleans for them who makes a disastrous mistake. Superb character creation, wonderfully described settings and lively dialogue characterise these stories of largely blighted, thwarted, discontented lives. The unsettling, unpredictable story endings will endure long in the memory. Brian Maye

The Wrong Man

Danny Morrison

Elsinor Verlag, £10

Danny Morrison’s reworked novel, The Wrong Man, reissued 21 years after its first publication is a west Belfast mean streets thriller that brings you back to Northern Ireland of the 1980s. It’s not a pretty place. Morrison began writing the piece towards the end of an eight-year IRA prison stretch for kidnapping an informer, a conviction that was later overturned. He was republicanism’s foremost propagandist, but here the writer’s objective eye applies and what unfolds is as credible and compelling as it is grim and gritty. It’s an old story well told of betrayal, of commitment to causes – to the IRA and to the British state – and how ordinary people trying to love and live life as best they can are caught up in the resultant maelstrom. The Wrong Man first was published in 1997. Morrison later turned it into a play, and some of that useful refashioning is included in this revision – for instance, two interrogations, one by RUC detectives, the other by IRA men masquerading as a loyalist death squad, carry a parallel dread authenticity. Gerry Moriarty

Follow Me to Ground

Sue Rainsford

New Island, €11.95

What is Ada? Witch? Monster? Non-human, anyway. She looks like a girl, but never ages. She wasn’t born but made from the ground by Father (no need for a mother). That same ground is used by Father and Ada when local people, who they call Cures, come to be healed of their ailments. Although their healing powers make Ada and her Father essential, they live apart from the community – they find Cures tiresome, and they seem to give Cures the creeps. Until Ada meets a Cure she quite fancies … The story is told from Ada’s point of view. Thanks to the writer’s skill, Ada’s voice is so strong that I immediately accepted the story’s supernatural events. The writer never explains, but because I was so firmly inside Ada’s head, explanations were unneeded. This lyrical book is truly creepy and perfect for this time of year, when the darkness grows. Mary Feely

The Pine Barrens

John McPhee

Daunt Books, £9.99

This enjoyable account has been republished for its 50th anniversary, where McPhee describes the Pine Barren’s history, topography and botany, myths and customs, and its people and prospects. It’s unlikely many of us will have the opportunity to visit such a place, so this book should allow the next best thing. About a third of the way in I twigged that the Pine Barrens featured in one of the famous episodes of The Sopranos. Aside from that the place had never flickered across my imagination. McPhee I knew from the New Yorker as one of the finest craftsmen of creative non-fiction, and with last year’s Draft No 4, his enjoyable writing manifesto-of-sorts. He has also written an entire book about oranges, and once lay on an outdoor table for two weeks to sum up the creative will to begin a new project. Therefore you can expect dense thickets of detail and structure (always structure), and he gives it to you straight – to the extent some readers might find dull – in a style that must be an editor’s dream, nevertheless. NJ McGarrigle

The Word for Woman is Wilderness

Abi Andrews

Serpent’s Tail £12.99

Nineteen-year-old Erin craves solitude: she hankers after adventure, the enigma of uncharted land, of conquest – something difficult to achieve in a technological world that has made an internet out of wilderness. She travels from England to Alaska, via the Arctic Circle, and across the US on a quest to absorb the vastness of nature, and the corresponding smallness of her own existence. Typical of the book, it travels from philosophical to funny with ease: “Things would be trickier if everyone was ultra-conscious of their infinitesimality. My mum does not believe in space.” Never far from humour, a breathlessness of travelogue, memoir, essay and personal odyssey, this book ricochets from how satellites will outlast us to Sylvia Plath, to why gulls never get tired. Refreshingly outward-looking in a literary culture that turns ever inward to the self, although it still has profound moments of introspection. Uplifting, with a thirsty curiosity, the writing is playful and exuberant. Riffing on feminist ideas but unlimited in scope, Andrews focuses our attention on our beautiful, doomed planet, and the astonishing things we have yet to discover. Ruth McKee

My Brother Jason

Tracey Corbett-Lynch with Ralph Riegel

Gill Books, €16.99

“My reason for writing this book is simple, I wanted to validate the truth – to oppose the lies of Tom and Molly Martens.” With the help of journalist Ralph Reigel, Tracey Corbett-Lynch has revealed the true Jason and the circumstances that resulted in his brutal murder in North Carolina, August 2014. Jason was grieving from the death of his young wife, Mags, shortly after the birth of their second child. The Limerick family was now fractured, and Jason advertised for the help of an au-pair: “Molly arrived in Ireland for the first time on 10 March 2008 with her all-American good looks, denim cowgirl outfit, bouncing blonde curls, beaming.” The vibrant young woman was not what she seemed. Determined to slot herself into the role of mother to Jason’s children, there was no stopping her. By 2011 the couple had married, but the cracks had begun to show. By August 2014, Jason was dead. A litany of lies and deceit facilitated a master-plan of gigantic proportion. Jason’s untold story is bared with the benefit of hindsight and his gentle personality is afforded due respect.

Margaret Madden

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