Browser reviews: From Sir Walter Raleigh to Sir Basil Brooke

Fiction from Louise Hall and Thomas Maloney, and a meditation on dislike by Amit Chaudhuri


Patriot or Traitor? The Life and Death of Sir Walter Raleigh

Anna Beer, Oneworld, £18.99

Anna Beer disposes of some of the myths surrounding Sir Walter Raleigh in this thematic biography, which looks at his life as a soldier, courtier, coloniser, lover, explorer and writer. His unpredictable career was characterised by a colossal flair for self-promotion. He’d already achieved much as a soldier and explorer before beginning his rapid ascent in the court of Queen Elizabeth. But his restless character meant he could never have enough. Failed expeditions to Virginia led to his desperate search for the mythical El Dorado in South America. He fell foul of James I, spent 13 years imprisoned and was allowed one final throw of the dice – another disastrous search for El Dorado, this time in Guiana – before being executed. The use of Raleigh’s own writing is the strongest part of the book. Beer doesn’t directly answer the question posed in the title of this well-told but poorly sourced work; “probably neither” would most likely be the best conclusion. Brian Maye

Pilgrim by Louise Hall

Mercier Press, €18.99

Charlie Carthy is left a widower when his wife is hit by a car; alcoholism and despair follow, jeopardising his relationship with his only daughter Jen, who is also struggling to deal with her mother’s death. Set in 1982, they make a pilgrimage to Medjugorje in the then Yugoslavia, a place where six children claim to have seen the Virgin Mary.

It is a candid story, dealing with tough subjects like heroin addiction and gambling with a pastoral tenderness. Set almost 40 years ago at the peak of the apparition phenomenon, Catholicism here is poetic – romanticised at times – as is the Ireland it depicts, through writing which is both lyrical and without artifice. Told from various perspectives, not everyone believes in the appearance of the Gospa, yet there is a suspension of disbelief throughout, making the small and large miracles in the narrative credible – arguably what faith is all about. Pilgrim has the truthfulness and magic of folklore, and can be understood in a similar way, speaking to a common brokenness, a shared need for what really can be miraculous-redemption. Ruth McKee

Ernest Blythe in Ulster by David Fitzpatrick

Cork University Press, €39

Ernest Blythe was that rare bird, a republican activist from a unionist background, during the Irish independence struggle and an Irish government minister for the first decade of the Free State. Even more remarkable, David Fitzpatrick has discovered that he was a member of the Orange Order while working for the unionist North Down Herald (1909-13), although he’d joined the IRB a few years before that. So, he asks, was Blythe a double agent. The answer is not in the usual sense but in that he identified with both sides of the island’s political divide and believed, for a period, that they could cooperate against Britain. This is not a full biography but rather challenges Blythe’s own version of his revolutionary education in his three-volume memoir in Irish (another of his life’s passions). It argues that his dual role influenced his subsequent views on partition. He was unusual for his time in arguing that unionists must be persuaded rather than coerced, a view that wasn’t much heard in the Republic until the 1960s or 1970s. Brian Maye

Learning to Die by Thomas Maloney

Scribe, £12.99

A meditative novel that keeps the reader at arm’s length; expect Montaigne quotes aplenty and interesting asides on physics, mountaineering and literature, all delivered sarcastically by a motley crew of characters in their thirties.

Thomas Maloney is a well-read and agile writer with a duality of cynicism and hope laced throughout his work. Mortality is explored through an unappealing cast of characters: James the tortured writer; Mike the lifeless millionaire; Brenda the reclusive hiker; Natalie the disenchanted grown-up; and Dan, her husband, the gentle genius.

The narrative structure takes a while to adjust to with all five characters given a page of interior monologue at a time and the oscillating points of view can be frustrating. The plot takes a while to get going and when it does it’s mainly concerned with two of the five characters, leaving the others waylaid. All five come across a little flat and the reader is all too aware of the narrative structure whisking them away once they establish any sort of connection. Mia Colleran

The Life of Sir Basil Brooke by Sam Logan

The Book Guild, €15.95

The book jacket states that Sir Basil Brooke was born into an English family that came to Ireland in the 17th century “to keep order”, which, it is fair to say, has a special meaning in Ulster. The family was still keeping order in the early 20th century as Brooke was the founding commander of the Special Constabulary in Co Fermanagh, a nearly full-time job, according to the author, Sam Logan, a retired chemistry lecturer. He was, of course, opposed to Home Rule. He continued keeping order in Northern Ireland as prime minister there from 1943 to 1963. The author relates that he was promoted to ministerial rank shortly after lamenting publicly in 1933 that, “many in this audience employ Catholics”. But, he went on in that speech, “I have not one about my place”. The author relates that, following criticism, Brooke confirmed that he had no thought of backing down from that statement. Brooke was a firm believer in the Protestant Ascendency. The final chapter is a short analysis of Brooke’s career and the author is mildly critical of him. Frank MacGabhann

The Origins of Dislike by Amit Chaudhuri

Oxford University Press

“In art, love of life is a kind of polemic, a kind of argumentation.” In this collection of critical essays, novelist, poet and academic Amit Chaudhuri brings both love and polemic to a set of nuanced and occasionally shocking essays on literature and culture. Written in a careful, thorough manner, Chaudhuri probes difficult theoretical, historical and literary questions. What separates poetry from thought? Can creative work be argumentative? Can writers offer anything but a testimony of their own writing? Drawing on an inimitable knowledge of various texts and traditions, Chaudhuri embarks here on an impressive set of essays which are delivered in an easy and confident prose, deliberating complex ideas in readable, astute language.

Chaudhuri explores a theory that the popular reader is an invention of capitalism, and explores the commodification of certain narratives and styles by the publishing industry. Although not confined to an exploration of dislike, Chaudhuri’s book calls for a personal canon-building and questioning of tradition that is compelling and exciting. He reflects, “how nice it would be to like the things one is supposed to; life would be so much more comfortable, so much calmer! Dislike, then, is potentially more disruptive than ideology or taste”. Ruth McKee

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