The Irish Family: Kate O’Brien, Anakana Schofield, and Lisa McInerney

These are the kinds of stories which expose the imperfections which lie beneath a carefully smoothed comforter.

Honest characterization is key, Lisa McInerney explains to Marie Gethins,:

“There is absolutely no element or aspect of their characters’ lives a writer should shy away from presenting, no matter how unpleasant. There’s nothing honest about buffing away ugly but important facets of your characters’ lives so as to appeal to a wider audience or placate publishers.” (Interview here.)

Her “head-in-the-clouds, feet-in-the-swamp apprentice drug dealer” character just won’t let go. (This from an interview which followed her longlisting for the Women’s Fiction Prize.)

Or, is it that she doesn’t want to let him go? “Characters who consistently manage to turn advantage into detriment are bloody fun to write,” she tells Paul McVeigh at The Irish Times.

Ryan Cusack’s story remained unfinished at the end of The Glorious Heresies, and the second novel moves solidly into his perspective (there were five voices in the first novel), and the pacing tightens as readers’ (and the writer’s) comfort with perspective takes hold.

(The quotes below are drawn from both The Glorious Heresies and The Blood Miracles, unattributed and disordered, so as to muddy potential spoilers.)

“Kicked out of school, time under your belt already and a future bright as a bruise” is how Jimmy Phelan describes a young Cusack.

But which one? It could be Ryan’s father, Tony, for readers know about his criminal activities from the start, but Ryan’s involvement ratchets up quickly.

“Whatever punishment comes for me I’ll take it as long as you know…I did it for you. For the very same reason you did what you did: you do what you have to for family. How can I be sorry, then? How can I be sorry when I did it for you?”

The family connection is at the heart of the story, simultaneusly secure and fragile. “So it is not remarkable that Phelan sought to enlist Ryan, whose apprenticeship was such a notable thing. And it is not remarkable that Ryan was bound to bow under the man whose word is sacrosanct on the streets, especially since the penalty was orphanhood.”

Ryan’s relationship with his father, Tony, is tumultuous. “A couple of times, he thought he might miss his father, kind of like you’d miss a bad tooth or a gangrenous arm.”

Ryan’s mother is dead, but sometimes he imagines she isn’t. “Do you think me talking to you is all forgiveness and fucking love? Naw, it’s not. It’s me telling you. Me telling you.”

His story is largely a story of disconnection, with notable exceptions (for instance, his entanglement with Karine, who has a voice in the first novel and a presence in the second). “They accidentally make eye-contact through the smoke and look away again, like two lights flicked off at the same time.”

Ryan has a story which needs telling. Or, more accurately, one which he needs to hear being told. Largely because he needs to know how it ends.

The story plays out in Cork, which Tony describes with a kind of dark tenderness: “Below him, his city spread in soft mounds and hollows, like a duvet dropped into a well.”

The residents of this “small city of one hundred and twenty thousand souls” live “overlapping lives”, so that either Cusack man shares “a background with people whose deeds are darker than any of his”.

In feeling, it’s not far removed from the fictional setting of Kate O’Brien’s debut in terms of the colours exposed, although O’Brien was writing Without My Cloak more than eighty years ago, and the story spans from 1789 to 1877 in the Considine family.

“He discovered Mellick’s slums…the crumbling Old Town that looked so gently beautiful at evening; grey, sad, and tender, huddled on humpy bridges about canals and twisting streams – and found that under its mask of dying peace it lived a swaming, desperate, full-blooded life, a life rich in dereliction, a life of beggars, drunkards, idiots, tramps, tinkers, cripples, a merry, cunning, ribald, unprotesting life of despair and birth and waste.”

O’Brien’s 1931 novel was also told in a chorus of voices and ultimately focuses on one woman’s position in the family: “She had one courage, the courage of passion.”

One could argue that this is true, too, of McInerney’s novels. Ryan’s character is engaging partly on his own merit but partly on his connection with Karine early in the first volume. Her passion for him and the push-pull of their connection carries readers’ hearts along in moments when they might be tempted to set aside Ryan’s missteps, electing for easier reading.

Kate O’Brien’s characters dwell on the contradictions of their passions too and the attractions are no more predictable than those in Lisa McInerney’s novels.

Beyond gender, there are expectations resting in class and religion: so many hooks upon which these characters can dangle. “He ought to have known that by her sex and training and tradition she was bound to be either the woman that he did not know, creature of her Church and of her filial and maternal and herd instincts, a piece of her own setting indeed – or else a woman transfigured out of all that setting by passionate love.”

“It’ll all be the same in a hundred years,” is Grafton Street’s motto, and if, say, twice in every hundred years she had to be emphatic about this, Irishmen being the noisy lunatics they are, she is never perturbed, for she keeps on finding that men and women remain the same, with life’s seduction just as sweet to them, however the years receded with their fashions and fanaticisms.”

So many themes endure from the 1930s through to the Cusack family story. “There is no way to get tired of a whole life. I thought there was.,” declares one of O’Brien’s characters.

When that’s just what Ryan was hoping, that he could tire of the risk-soaked life of crime he’s leading.

But he should have taken heed of advice given to another of O’Brien’s characters:

“Wherever you go and whatever you do you’ll only get a very small bit of what you want. That’s true.”

That is true, too, for Anakana Schofield’s Our Woman in Malarky. But she, in fact, puts paid to the question of whether one can tire of a whole life. She has, indeed, grown tired of hers.

“She’s between regret and resignation, a nowhere in particular spot.”

Like Lisa McInerney’s novels, the power of the telling rests in the voice. Although Anakana Schofield’s Malarky has a voice all its own. Our Woman’s voice.

“Just because they may think she’s going mad does not mean she’s under contract to deliver it up to them.”

She, too, is determined to expose the whole story, but on her own terms. Even though part of her remains unable to face some parts of it.

“She’d love to roll under a cupboard and just wrap herself around the molecules of the story she cannot quite trace.”

Unlike O’Brien and unlike McInerney, whose books run more than 300 pages (O’Brien’s debut is closer to 500, although her later novels are not as long) long, Malarky is concise and spare.

“It’s beautiful when it all makes sense, so it is. Occasionally it makes sense, just for a moment.”

Peering beneath the bedcovers: catching odd moments of sense.

Read More Irish

Read any of these? Plan to? Have a favourite Irish author?



  1. Naomi September 5, 2017 at 9:44 am - Reply

    I loved Martin John, too, but think Malarky’s still my favourite. 🙂

    Yes, Our Woman is like a more eccentric, Irish Gallant character. Martin John’s mother, too… I really liked the parts of the book about his mother!

    • Buried In Print September 5, 2017 at 10:41 am - Reply

      How ironic that you would find Martin John almost a footnote to the story, the women shining more in the telling, when he was a character who emerged from a footnote in Malarky to start with. Also ironic that it’s your mention of the “minor characters” which makes me want to seek out the book more so than ever!

  2. Naomi September 4, 2017 at 2:52 pm - Reply

    I love that last quote you’ve included from Malarky. And how I loved that book. Funny and strange and sad and everything in between.
    I’d like to read the McInerney books, too, sometime.

    • Buried In Print September 5, 2017 at 8:31 am - Reply

      I actually think you’d really like the energy of the McInerney books. They read very quickly and easily and it feels like such a modern family saga (even though the tendrils are not as obvious as in classic novels). Also, I feel like there’s something Maritimes-ish in the way she sketches Cork, but maybe I’m way off on that. (You would know by a couple of pages whether it’s for you.)

      Doesn’t Our Woman seem kind of like a Mavis Gallant character? In some ways? Her loneliness, I guess. Obviously the language is completely different (AS does such a wicked job with voice – impeccable), but the feel of it is similar to me. I’m so keen to read Martin John and the past two libraries I’ve visited I’ve seen it waving at me from the shelves. With the third sighting, I shall borrow it. And, then, perhaps, buy it. As I had to do with Malarky.

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