‘Martin John may be hard to like as a person but his story is unforgettable’

A bookclub based in Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop in Galway has read both of Anakana Schofield’s novels. Here’s what they thought

Our  bookclubbers agreed that Martin John wasn’t just a portrait of a molester, but also a critique of the society that damaged him

Our bookclubbers agreed that Martin John wasn’t just a portrait of a molester, but also a critique of the society that damaged him

 

We may be living in the digital age, but one thing hasn’t changed: People still love coming together – in person – to talk about books. Our three lively book clubs here at Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop in Galway city are living proof. Each club meets monthly (and on a different day of the week, so that some members can easily attend more than one, if they like).

When we introduced our Wednesday Morning Book Club sessions in spring 2014, our bookclubbers chose Malarky by Anakana Schofield as our very first pick – not least since Schofield would be reading at the Cúirt International Festival of Literature in Galway shortly afterwards, and we were excited to see her in person. And when we talked about the book itself at our monthly meeting, a very challenging discussion erupted around this novel. While some bookclubbers couldn’t get into it, many others loved it, and dubbed it an articulation of the very Irish tendency of making light of a serious situation (in this case, a woman’s sanity – or lack of it) in a blackly funny and highly compelling way.

And when our heroine, Philomena – known throughout most of the story as Our Woman – ends up in a psychiatric ward in the last quarter of the novel, she finds herself in the bed next to a man who turned out to be a kindred spirit of sorts: Martin John. We only got a glimpse of Martin John in Malarky, but when we finished it, we were all dying to know: who was Martin John?

So, when Martin John was published by And Other Stories in February, our Wednesday Morning Book Club promptly chose it as their pick for March. Like Malarky, Martin John sure made for a lively discussion. Set several decades ago in London, Schofield’s experimental writing style takes the reader through the mind and motivations of Martin John, who, it turns out, is an eccentric and a loner, but also a sexual deviant (one book club member described him as a “sexual aggressor”.)

Dark and disturbing, this chronicle of a fractured mind shouldn’t be quite so impossible to put down – but for our group, it was. “Nothing I have read this year has implanted itself in my head more,” bookclubber Stephen remembers. “Not an easy book to read, but worth it,” agrees bookclubber Rachel. “It’s uncomfortably memorable.” And funny, too, in ways reminiscent of Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy or the plays of Martin McDonagh. “I read the whole book and at the same time I kept asking myself, ‘What am I laughing at?!’” book club member Bernie told us. “I suppose part of it is the [familiar] west of Ireland sayings and dialogue that are hilarious because we’ve heard them so often.”

Ultimately, our Wednesday morning bookclubbers agreed that Martin John wasn’t just a portrait of a molester, but also a critique of the society that damaged him and helped to form his deviancy – a society in which, as Bernie observed, sexual repression was rife, and which offered individuals like Martin John little help in the way of therapy or other psychiatric services. It may be hard to like Martin John as a person – but his story is unforgettable.

Megan Buckley was book club co-ordinator at Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop in Galway from 2013 until Michaela McDermott took over in 2015

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