Browser: An unsentimental meditation on loss through geography
Brief reviews of Ghostland: In Search of a Haunted Country, by Edward Parnell; Arise and Go, by Kevin Connolly
Ghostland: In Search of a Haunted Country by Edward Parnell
Ghostland: In Search of a Haunted Country
William Collins, £16.99
“Always the ghosts,” begins Edward Parnell in this strikingly unsentimental meditation on loss that blends memoir with psychogeography, literary pilgrimage and nature writing. In his late teens, Parnell - a lifelong fan of ghost and horror stories - lost both of his parents. Two decades later, his brother died. Weaving the narrative around these absences, he seeks out Britain’s “sequestered places,” landscapes that inspired writers such as MR James, Arthur Machen and WG Sebald. Like Sebald, he includes grainy black and white photographs that fit with the text’s melancholy and its tensions between recollection and wilful amnesia; carefully curated digressions and ellipses contribute to the mystery and momentum. As powerful as it is measured, Ghostland is about resilience as well as grief; in excavating stories by others, Parnell learns to keep his own within reach.
Arise and Go
O’Brien Press, €17.99
This book about the places and people that inspired Yeats’s verse has sections on Dublin, Sligo, the rest of the west of Ireland and London. The title evokes his most well-known poem, The Lake Isle of Inisfree, and Knocknarea, Benbulben, Lissadell, Drumcliff and Lough Gill are among other Sligo places that formed his “land of heart’s desire”. Another well-known connection explored is that with Lady Gregory. It was one of Yeats’s most fortuitous encounters because she furnished him with “the space, time, environment and finances he needed to let his creativity flourish”. One mightn’t normally associate London with Yeats but it contributed its share to his artistic formation - and he met Maud Gonne there. Although revealing little that is new, the book’s love of its subject shines through.
One Man’s Terrorist: A Political History of the IRA
By Daniel Finn
Finn treads a well-worn path from 1968 to the peace process and what’s developed since; much of what’s here has been said before. He is studious in his research and solid in his writing, and as deputy editor of the New Left Review considers any red socialist specks on the green flag of Irish republicanism, no matter how small. This volume would best suit an outsider looking in, a reader starting from a low base on the green perspective of Northern Ireland’s recent history (Finn’s likely target). I wished his final analysis focused more on Sinn Féin’s predicament as a party with distinct identities north and south of the Border. Instead, much like the politics of parity of esteem, he finishes up in a critical cul-de-sac.
Murder in the Missions
By Jean Harrington
Mercier Press, €14.99
Sixty years ago, Ireland was one of the main exporters globally of priests and nuns. Today, the Irish missionary movement has all but collapsed. In Murder in the Missions, Jean Harrington documents the lives of two members of this disappearing foreign legion - Fr Des Hartford and Fr Rufus Halley. The two Columban Fathers went to Mindanao in the southern Philippines, an area of friction between Christians and Muslims, in their early 20s. Years later, one priest would be kidnapped, the other murdered. With a critical eye, Harrington shows how conflict blithely characterised as religious can have deep political roots, and she delicately captures a way of life that now appeals to very few - a life of sacrifice, simplicity, and brotherly love.
The King from Over the Water
The Wild Geese Press, £10
John O’Donoghue’s latest offering is a collection of short stories set in the fictional rural landscape of Ballydawn, into which John Kevin arrives from London every summer and learns, with his cousin Mattie, of the reality of life in Ireland during the Troubles. A lecturer in creative writing at the University of Brighton, O’Donoghue has a distinct ear for the patterns of Irish speech and a particular talent for capturing the dialogue of his characters. The stories manage to avoid the dangerous slide towards nostalgia that haunts the narration of childhood adventures, providing the reader with an insight into the emigrant experience that is simultaneously magical and relatable. These stories are small in the best sense of the word, offering an intimacy and creating an intensity that demands attention from the reader but rewards generously.
By Robert Macfarlane and Stanley Donwood
Orford Ness is a former secret weapons research establishment off the Suffolk coast. Describing it in The Rings of Saturn, WG Sebald wrote that “the closer I came to these ruins, the more any notion of a mysterious isle of the dead receded, and the more I imagined myself amidst the remains of our own civilization after its extinction in some future catastrophe”. Such are the sentiments explored by Robert Macfarlane and artist Stanley Donwood in their latest collaboration, Ness, a quasi-mythic tale constellated around the image of a hag-stone. The resonances of the site create a fertile atmosphere for Macfarlane to riff on his recurrent themes of deep time and ecological threat. Donwood’s black and white illustrations, echoing Sebald’s photographs, shimmer with menace.