Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan by Ruth Gilligan review
Gilligan’s ‘literary fiction’ debut inventively connects up Ireland’s Jewish narratives
Ruth Gilligan: has written a number of successful romance novels, among them ‘Forget’
Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan
With a new exhibition on the representation of Jews in Irish literature now on at the RHA’s Dawson Street Academy, Ruth Gilligan’s new novel has a timely launch. A layered narrative with memorable characters, Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan tells the stories of Jewish immigrants in Ireland from the turn of the 20th century to the present day.
Gilligan is an Irish journalist who has written a number of successful romance novels, among them her debut, Forget (2006), which reached number one on the Irish bestseller list when she was 19. This new novel is billed as her “literary debut”, with themes of identity, creation and the importance of heritage at its centre.
There is a confidence and flow to the writing that shows Gilligan’s assured hand. Her three central characters each have their own voice and their stories weave nicely together, with shifts in time handled well. Three main narratives, set in 1901, 1958 and 2013, envelop many more within. The author is interested in the longevity and universality of stories. Her characters are often strangers in a strange land who become part of their new communities through the power of storytelling.
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Take 10-year-old Ruth’s father, Tateh, who has landed his family in Cork in 1901 after mistaking the cries in the harbour for New York. A Lithuanian Jewish playwright hoping to sell his stories on Broadway, Tateh and his disgruntled wife, Mame, must instead make do with Lady Gregory and the Abbey. There is a slapstick humour to their story, initially, before the seed of creativity turns bad and leads to tragedy.
Gilligan plays up the Cork antics and accent, overdoing it at times, as the Greenbergs try to make the best of their new homeland. Tateh’s constant stream of ideas – “What about a set of twins who speak in alternate words? . . . What about a man who is famous for folding up paper into beautiful shapes?” – echoes the novel itself, brimming with concepts and yarns.
The second narrator is Shem Sweeney, an 18-year-old sent by his father to an asylum in 1950s Ireland because he hasn’t spoken since he was 12 at his bar mitzvah. Shem’s unusually close relationship with his mother begets the secret that has stopped his speech. The revelation is less macabre than the reader might think, and ultimately stretches credibility for a young man to waste away in an asylum as his parents abandon him to move back to Israel.
Shem’s antagonistic relationship with fellow inmate Alf comes through more vividly, fitting neatly with the story of Ruth Greenberg as she becomes a lonesome adult midwife “betrothed to her babies”. Their story brings the reader over interesting historical ground as Gilligan looks at how Little Jerusalem in Dublin’s Portobello was bombed by the Luftwaffe in the second World War.
The most engaging voice of the book belongs to the third narrator, Aisling Creedon, a contemporary Irishwoman who has emigrated to London in search of a “brand new, Crunch free beginning”. The plight of the recent generation of Irish emigrants is laid bare: “You could swim it if you were desperate enough, and God knows some of them were.”
Aisling’s loneliness in London disappears when she meets a handsome Jewish banker, Noah Geller. The literal magic of the relationship – Noah is an amateur magician who makes paper swans appear in her pocket – is threatened when, two years in, Aisling is introduced to Noah’s parents at Chanukah and given a rather presumptive gift.
As Aisling hightails back to a vibrantly depicted Ireland for Christmas, her predicament on giving up part of her identity for someone else’s faith is brilliantly related. The voice is warm and endearing, reminiscent of the modern female narrators of Irish writers Belinda McKeon and Nuala Ní Chonchúir.
Not everything succeeds so well. An omniscient narrator interjects in parts, perhaps to keep us abreast of all the various plot threads, which result in a busy narrative that may confuse in early sections. Elsewhere, the writing is heavy on metaphor.
Tateh doesn’t let his family see his new script, but “they could read most of what they needed to on the new gleam in his specs as he wandered in and out of their lives”. His play, the Irishness of it, seems more a creation of the author than Tateh himself, while footnotes in a book on how to convert to the Jewish faith don’t ring true for a woman in mid-20th century Ireland.
But even when the novel strains with the weight of its ideas and devices, Gilligan brings it all together by the end, showing her control and cleverness as a writer who is clearly enthralled by connections.
As Aisling notes of that most famous of literary Irish Jews: “She remembers the bit of Joyce she read in college where he compared umbilical cords to a network of telephone cables – the things that bind us together, stranger to stranger.”