Historical fiction with a haunting touch brings forgotten Irish women back to life

Browser review: The Cambridge Companion to Boxing; Essays by an Irish Rebel; Devilspel

Orla McAlinden, author of The Flight of the Wren

Orla McAlinden, author of The Flight of the Wren


The Flight of the Wren

Orla McAlinden
Red Stag Mentor, €14.99
Tasmania, 1919. Sally glimpses her face in the mirror and knows she is dying: “the dusky hue of the crêpey skin . . . so different from the fine pale skin of healthy old age . . . I am drowning slowly, drowning blackly in my own dark fluids.” The Spanish influenza - or Black Death - has hitched a ride with returning soldiers, spreading like wildfire. As the disease takes hold, the memories flood back and seep out into the world she has created in Australasia; a world far away from the Great Hunger of Ireland.

King’s County, 1848. Fourteen-year-old Sally lies on the mound of her parent’s grave. Famine has decimated the country and she has nowhere to go. As she wanders the roads and fields, searching for food, she enters the world of the Curragh Wrens: women who have made lives in the bushes surrounding the army barracks, servicing soldiers in order to survive. This life is extremely harsh and dangerous and Sally sees transportation as the only option. McAlinden delivers historical fiction with a lyrical and haunting touch, bringing these forgotten Irish women back to life. Margaret Madden

The Cambridge Companion to Boxing

Edited by Gerald Early
Cambridge University Press, £24.99
Fight fans probably know Gerald Early for his lively contributions to documentaries by Ken Burns, such as Unforgivable Blackness, detailing the life of legendary heavyweight Jack Johnson. With this book he’s put together an excellent collection on the sweet science. Various writers essay diverse subjects: those that underpin boxing’s history (race and individualism), to more left field ideas like how the advent of television combined with mob involvement managed to give the sport a golden age in the 1950s.

This companion will cater for both aficionados and those with a casual interest in boxing, as it’s as entertaining for its stories outside the ring as inside it. There are excellent chapters on women’s boxing and its development; the mythical bare-knuckle era; and the under-appreciated tradition of great Jewish fighters. Boxing is no longer the sport we use as a prism to consider society but, as Early notes, “the weight of its contradictions - being inhumane yet profoundly human - is what gives boxing its enduring power, its cultural relevance despite its persistent marginality.” NJ McGarrigle

Essays by an Irish Rebel

Liam Ó Briain
Ardcrú Books, €18
Liam Ó Briain was active in the Gaelic League, Sinn Féin, the Irish Volunteers and fought in the 1916 Rising. He was Professor of Romance Languages in University College Galway from 1917 to 1959. He writes about trips he made to France and Italy during the War of Independence, at times carrying messages from Michael Collins, and about his periods of internment from 1920-21. He also writes in defence of Eoin MacNeill’s actions in relation to the Rising and with insight on Sean Ó Lúing’s Art Ó Gríofa (Ó Briain knew Griffith well). An amusing story about Seán T O’Kelly is related, as are poignant memories of Pádraic Ó Conaire. He shares his memories of people active in the Gaelic League and the independence struggle, such as Piaras Béaslaí and WT Cosgrave. His reflections on 60 years of the Irish-language movement (written in 1963) are prescient about the violent struggle that erupted in Northern Ireland. Congratulations to Eoin Ó Dochartaigh for translating and bringing together these essays originally published in Comhar and Feasta. Brian Maye


Grigory Kanovich
Noir, £12
Grigory Kanovich is one of the most important and influential Jewish writers living today. Winner of the Lithuanian National Prize for Culture and Arts in 2014, he and his mother survived the German invasion of Lithuania in the second World War almost by chance. The events of Devilspel unfold during the 1940s, chronicling the lives of the persecuted, and the persecutors.

The town of Mishskine, perfectly realised in intimate detail, becomes a microcosm of a larger world ravaged by war and chaos. Kanovich’s characterises people in the town in the deepest sense of the word: through them the novel comes to life. Danuta Hadassah’s fiery spirit, Elisheva’s sustained idealism, Cheslavas’s conflict, all become prisms through which Kanovich can bring his focus to bear on issues of tolerance, forgiveness and hatred.

In the context of Kanovich’s wider works, Devilspel evokes and memorialises a community and a world that no longer exists. Powerful, demanding and at times transcendent, the novel asks the reader to not only engage with the concept and experience of suffering, but to embrace it, and the human spirit’s capacity to overcome it. Becky Long

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