In praise of Maeve Binchy, by Sinéad Crowley

Celebrating Irish women writers: ‘It wasn’t until I reread the book over two decades later that I fully appreciated Maeve Binchy’s gift for mixing light with shade’

Maeve Binchy at the National Gallery of Ireland beside her  portrait  by Maeve McCarthy: “Her novels sold in their millions but before them came her journalism, columns that transported the reader to the front row of a royal wedding, gently explained the reality of mental illness or captured with bitter simplicity the silence of a couple who had run out of things to say. Colour writing at its finest. Light and shade.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Maeve Binchy at the National Gallery of Ireland beside her portrait by Maeve McCarthy: “Her novels sold in their millions but before them came her journalism, columns that transported the reader to the front row of a royal wedding, gently explained the reality of mental illness or captured with bitter simplicity the silence of a couple who had run out of things to say. Colour writing at its finest. Light and shade.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Strangers become sisters. A son disappoints his father. A young woman sits, mortified yet dignified as her husband drinks his way through their wedding night. When I first read Light a Penny Candle as a teenager I found the plot absorbing, the characters unerringly realistic, but it wasn’t until I reread the book over two decades later that I fully appreciated Maeve Binchy’s gift for mixing light with shade.

Her readers knew the Ireland she was talking about and could recognise its people. In the era of the 1980s blockbuster Binchy wrote, not of Hollywood mansions but of the small Irish town and its Commercial Hotel. She showed readers of Irish popular fiction that stories could be rooted in the local and the familiar and she inspired many other women writers to do the same.

Her novels sold in their millions but before them came her journalism, columns that transported the reader to the front row of a royal wedding, gently explained the reality of mental illness or captured with bitter simplicity the silence of a couple who had run out of things to say. Colour writing at its finest. Light and shade.

“I think we might have two vintage ports,” he said to the wine waiter without consulting her.

“How splendid, port!”, she said politely, in tones that you knew meant she would have said How Splendid if he’d ordered a glass of arsenic. From The Couple Who Behaved Perfectly, by Maeve Binchy

Other favourites: Marian Keyes and Anne Enright

Sinéad Crowley is Arts and Media Correspondent with RTE News. Her debut novel, Can Anybody Help Me? was shortlisted for the Bord Gais Energy Irish Crime Novel of the Year in 2014.

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