Cold Eye of Heaven Christine Dwyer Hickey Atlantic Books, £7.99Few authors would have the courage to begin a novel with their main character collapsed on his bathroom floor, paralysed by a stroke, helpless, ignominious, ridiculous. But, as we know from her previous books, Tatty and Last Train from Liguria, Christine Dwyer Hickey is fearless.
From this unnervingly still point she creates a turning world that takes the reader back through the life of her 75-year-old hero, Farley, rewinding the movie right into his childhood. Farley has lived a full life. He’s a Dubliner for our century. There’s fun, laughter, raucousness, love and, above even that, the observant eye of the author and her subtle, passionate writing style. Cold Eye of Heaven is a technical tour de force, but it’s also a book that sees right to the heart of things.
By Tobias Smollett
Penguin English Library, £5.99
One of the earliest, and funniest, road novels yet penned, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771) sees the clever Scot satirist bringing the epistolary novel an important stage further in its evolution by increasing the number of letter writers.
Most of the characters range from self-absorbed to eccentric and irretrievably bonkers which guarantees conflicting versions of the same events. Squire Matthew Bramble invariably believes he is ill – Smollett was in fact dying – and so sets off on a hectic farewell tour of England and Scotland.
It becomes an epic family holiday; accompanied by his nephew and niece, as well as his spinster sister Tabitha who brings her savage pet dog, Chowder, the Squire is indeed righteous, though not without sin as eventually emerges. The eponymous hero a saintly Methodist is willing, able and central to the proceedings without ever writing a letter. One of English literature's enduring classics, Smollett’s dazzling burlesque is also insightful Georgian social history.
The Singing Flame
Mercier Press, €16.99
The Singing Flame makes up a third of Ernie O’Malley’s wartime biography and deals with life and death during the Civil War and its immediate aftermath. It is a brutal and lyrical story about O’Malley’s activities with the anti-Treaty IRA between 1921 and 1924. The author’s son, Cormac, provides a brief preface in which he notes that this updated version contains some names, dates and locations that did not appear when The Singing Flame was first published, in 1978. He writes that his father was 24 as the Civil War approached and that he was in charge of 13,000 IRA men. It is hard to credit, in these days of troikas and bailouts, that so many people volunteered to fight, but such were the times. O’Malley writes acidly about politics that “vote- snatching counted more than the building up of an independent point of view”. Has much changed?
Pól Ó Muirí
The Power of Then: How the Sages of the Past Can Help us in Our Everyday Lives
Hay House, £10.99
James Bremner’s The Power of Then is a collection of 16 well-crafted essays on philosophers and visionaries whose lives offer pause for reflection. Many of Bremner’s subjects are familiar – Plato, Jung, Julian of Norwich, Diogenes – and others not so much. It is perhaps the unfamiliar who are the most fascinating: Hildegard of Bingen, whose reflections on creation and energy, Bremner argues, “can change us, if we can allow ourselves to play with it imaginatively in our minds”; and the medieval mystic Margery Kempe, whom Bremner adopts as a saint for the midlife crisis. She started a religious journey at a time when such an undertaking was very dangerous. Her example shows that “if a 40-year-old woman . . . can brave the dangers of solo pilgrimage in pursuit of her dream, we can do the same in pursuit of ours”.
Pól Ó Muirí
The Stranger’s Child
Alan Hollinghurst’s follow-up to his Booker prize-winning The Line of Beauty takes on a century of English class and sexual politics. Starting in 1913 with the visit of an aristocratic poet, Cecil, to the family home of his besotted fellow student and clandestine lover, George, the novel’s epic span reaches across years of shifting social attitudes to a 21st-century world of civil partnerships and greater sexual openness. But each step on the path of progress has required, as Hollinghurst shows, a fresh understanding of what went before, as symbolised in the novel by the biographers trying to get to the real story of Cecil’s life and work before his early death in the Great War. Hollinghurst’s observation is as sharp as ever, but his language sprawls a little, as if he has settled into the magisterial tone of the more indulgent upper-class milieu he is writing about. Still, the book is a feat of virtuosity.