Reviews in brief: a dying Ireland; death row and extinct species

Richard Power, Amitava Kumar, David Attenborough, James Kelman, Anthony Ray Hinton and Erik Martiny

Richard Power with his wife Ann and children Patrick and Robert at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1959

Richard Power with his wife Ann and children Patrick and Robert at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1959


The Rebels and Other Short Fiction
Richard Power (James MacKillop ed.)
Syracuse, $24.95

The narrative voices are many and varied in this wide-ranging and excellent collection from the gifted Irish writer, Richard Power, who died so young. Readers of his wonderful novel, The Hungry Grass, will be familiar with his skill of conveying character in a few well-chosen phrases, also strongly in evidence in these stories. As he died nearly 50 years ago, it’s no surprise that some stories relate to an Ireland now almost gone forever, when rural children still brought sods of turf to school (The Rebels), farmers sold their cattle in small-town fair greens (Peasants) and Travellers camped on roadsides (Neighbours and Pilgrim). Others, however, are modern, such as The Pill, where a knowing teenager runs rings round her parents; many are timeless, such as The Letter, where the male narrator is deeply disappointed an overture he makes to a young woman doesn’t evoke the hoped-for response, and Deór na hAithrí (here in both the original Irish and in translation), a desperately sad story of a deserted wife and mother. Congratulations to James MacKillop for keeping Power’s work before us.
James MacKillop will be giving a short talk on Richard Power this Sunday, November 17th, at 3pm at Books Upstairs,  D'Olier Street, Dublin

Immigrant, Montana
By Amitava Kumar
Faber and Faber, £14.99

When we move places, are we emigrant or immigrant, to ourselves, to others? When we fall in love do we lose who we are, or are we otherwise transformed? Amitava Kumar’s Immigrant, Montana asks both of these questions through the love affairs and academic pursuits of Kalaish, as he arrives at graduate college in New York from his native India.

Now known as AJ, Kalaish grows into his new name and fresh emotional skin through his erotic relationships with Jennifer, Nina and Cai Yan; each bring original pain and keen lessons, a process which is reflected in his intellectual life, as he becomes infatuated with different ideas and philosophies.

A sly style and clever humour subvert this ostensibly coming-to-maturity novel; it plays with post-colonial tropes, often giving itself the side eye. Touching on Said’s notion that “exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience,” Kailash is bruised, broken and remade, both through heartbreak and through his political education and growing understanding of America: he asks whether he belongs anywhere in the world, if any of us truly do.

The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row
By Anthony Ray Hinton
Rider, £16.99

Being poor, black and having no father in America caused Anthony Hinton to wonder how he had made it to 29 without a noose around his neck. But his luck ran out when he was arrested and charged with two counts of capital murder. Despite flimsy evidence (a lying witness and a gun not fired in years) his “fool-proof” alibi was dismissed and he was duly sentenced to death. In American prisons solitary confinement is exactly that, and here Hinton was to spend his next 30 years trying all the while to clear his name. Time does not drag on Alabama’s Death Row. On the contrary – when you know your execution date, every week feels like a day, every hour a minute. But his mother never failed him nor did his lifelong, loyal friend Lester who never missed a visit and always put money into Hinton’s prison account. Finally, after 16 years of appeals, and with the help of a civil-rights attorney, he won his release. It is extraordinary how Hinton maintained his humanity and dignity for so long in solitary confinement. This is at once a disturbing read and an inspiring memoir.

The Pleasures of Queueing: A Novel
Erik Martiny
Mastadon Publishing, £15

Erik Martiny’s debut novel is a witty account of the trials and tribulations of a Franco-Irish family living in Cork from the early 1970s to the mid-1990s. It is chronicles the sexual escapades of the parents, which result in the mother giving birth to no less than 27 children, which causes mayhem in the morning and at meal times. With all these people around privacy is impossible: in fact, even gaining access to a toilet in such a highly populated home is problematic.

Martiny can definitely spin a yarn and has a gift for comedy. He begins each chapter with a short summary of what is happening in the world in the year about to be covered. Incidents that occur within the family assume some of the epic qualities of the big news stories of the time. The father, a French academic working in University College Cork, is described as someone who jealously holds on to his “Frenchitude”. The mother is a pious Irish Catholic who goes to Mass three times on week days and twice on Sunday. What distinguishes her from other traditional Catholics is “the almost unreserved pagan relish she has for sexual intercourse”, only with her husband, of course!

The Pleasures of Queueing could well be remembered as the first published work of a famous artist. Equally, its author might never make the difficult breakthrough in the literary world. Although the stylistic pyrotechnics and gargantuan exaggeration can grate at times, there is nonetheless a quality that draws one to the text and indicates that Martiny may well be a force to be reckoned with.

Journeys to the other side of the world: further adventures of a young naturalist
David Attenborough
Two Roads, £25

This is a curious animal, engaging and evocative but ultimately poignant. For it could have been titled Journeys to Places and Times Long Gone. It is a compilation of three books that emerged from the great man’s BBC excursions nearly 60 years ago, in the very early Sixties, to Papua New Guinea, Madagascar and the Australian Northern Territory. As we hunt the birds of paradise, we meet pygmies making stone axes; we make a sacred sacrifice to crocodiles; we make fire with Aboriginals. And as we read, we know virtually everyone we encounter has died, species have become extinct, entire cultures have been wiped away. It is incredible to us now that part of his mission was to collect live specimens of creatures to be returned to London Zoo. Fortunately, Attenborough is a fine writer and storyteller, and his tales of action and adventure roll along nicely. Yet I finished with a sense of loss.

That Was a Shiver
James Kelman
Canongate, £9.99

The characters and settings in this collection come mostly from working-class Glaswegian life. We get many interior monologues from mainly middle-aged male narrators, angry at and anxious about life. One story’s title, Clinging On, could be considered metaphorically representative: ageing men wondering what is the purpose of life or if there’s any. But it’s not all bleak - if much of it is. The women tend to be the stronger characters, stable points in their fragile males’ lives, lifting them out of their more gloomy musings with well-aimed shafts of humour. One Has One’s Weans stands out for its humour. The longer, more realistic stories are better than the pared-down, shorter pieces, some of which are no more than exercises in playing with language. The title story is by far the best. Middle-aged Robert is walking around the Glasgow markets, ruminating upon his and life in general, in a gritty story full of pathos and humour. If you dislike the use of the f-word, and are put off by erratic punctuation, this anthology mightn’t be for you.

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