In praise of Anne Haverty by Manchán Magan
Irish women writers: ‘A skilled wordsmith capable of wielding an inked scalpel to delightful and dastardly effect’
“If writers are a Venn diagram of intimidating geniuses and warm-hearted crafters, Anne Haverty falls into the intersection, that lentil-shaped partial eclipse where the most readable writers reside.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
If writers are a Venn diagram of intimidating geniuses and warm-hearted crafters, Anne Haverty falls into the intersection, that lentil-shaped partial eclipse where the most readable writers reside. A skilled wordsmith capable of wielding an inked scalpel to delightful and dastardly effect, yet she never abandons compassion for the sake of literary evisceration. A humanity and warm-hearted chuckle run through her books, leavening them, no matter how dark the theme, tone or tale.
Haverty’s arrival on Ireland’s literary stage was eventful, with her first novel One Day as a Tiger (1997) winning the Rooney Prize and being shortlisted for the 1997 Whitbread First Novel Award. This wonderfully quirky and surprising book beguiled readers, with its humorous and devastatingly accurate dissection of a Middle Class farming family in the nineties. Her scalpel deftly exposed the subcutaneous tissue of Tipperary rural life in a fresh and vibrant way, with characters and a plot that seemed both genuine and comedic. It was satire infused with empathy.
The excitement of those who are forever seeking Ireland’s new literary voice (myself included) was further heightened with the publication of Haverty’s first poetry collection, The Beauty of the Moon (1999). Again, the vibrancy and honesty of the language allied with humour and a fresh perspective on contemporary themes set it apart. It was described by Derek Mahon as a “singing voice for ‘our dejected age’”.
There had been a nonfiction book before these two works, Countess Markievicz: An Independent Life (1988). This compact biography was elevated from its commissioned format by Haverty’s empathic insight into Markievicz’s agility at manoeuvring between the conflicting demands of feminism, republicanism and ascendency preconditioning.
Haverty’s second novel arrived in 2000. The Far Side of a Kiss dared to reappraise the character of Sarah Walker, a servant girl mercilessly trounced in William Hazlitt’s Libor Amoris (1823). The novel’s subtle re-imagining of this relic of British literature from a female perspective was questioned by certain influential (male) British critics, but was described in The Irish Times as “a dazzling, sophisticated performance”.
There followed a six-year gap before Haverty’s third novel, The Free and Easy (2006), a hilarious, close-to-the-bone parody of millennial Dublin’s vainglorious self-regard. The book does for boom-era Dublin what One Day as a Tiger did for rural Tipperary: judging and jibing, but in a warm and entertaining manner. This no-holes-barred parsing of the malaise at the core of affluent, arty Irish society may have been too close to the bone for the literary glitterati, many of whom were still sucking lustily from the teat of excess when the book was published. There were some snide attacks on the book, and while the success of satire is always open to interpretation, what is unquestionable is that the novel’s compassionate portrayal of an extended Dublin family was skilfully rendered, with eloquence and insight.
Manchán Magan is a writer and documentary-maker. He has written books on his travels in Africa, India and South America and two novels. He writes occasionally for The Irish Times and has presented and produced dozens of documentaries focusing on issues of world culture for TG4, RTE &Travel Channel.