Welcome returns for three Irish writers

Why is the publishing industry so obsessed with debuts?

This article is taken from the April 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The stuffy old world of publishing is no more immune to neophilia than the rest of our society and culture. In the UK there are numerous awards for first novels (Authors’ Club, Betty Trask, Costa, Desmond Elliott, to sample just the first four letters of the alphabet), but only one (Encore) for a second book. Two years ago, the great grandaddy of prizes, the Booker, confidently declared with its shortlist that of the six greatest novels written in English that year, four were debuts.

Let’s hear it then for non-debutants

Publishers, when they circulate lists of forthcoming titles to the spavined nags of the literary world like yours truly, often highlight debuts, as though they are especially appealing rather than, in most cases, a necessary rite through which every author must pass on the way to perfecting their trade.

Debuts are appealing to the industry for two reasons: first, they do, of course, offer by definition a new voice, and every Mantel or Faulkner — or, for that matter, Archer — was once one of those. But they also offer a new slate in commercial terms, with no ill-selling backlist, unearned-out advance, or remaindered stock casting a shadow over the fruit of their promise.

Let’s hear it then for non-debutants, the strivers and lifers who keep on keeping on, like Lucy Caldwell, whose profile was fairly low until she deservedly won the BBC National Short Story Award last year. Now, nine years after her last novel and with two collections of short fiction in between, she returns to the full-length form with her third novel These Days. 

Like many of Caldwell’s works, it takes its title from a poem by her beloved Louis MacNeice: “These days, though lost, will be all your days.” “These days” are four in April 1941, when Belfast experienced one of the worst bombings of any UK city in the course of the Second World War; more than 100,000 incendiary bombs dropped over two consecutive nights. (To put it in context, that was one bomb for every four people in the city.)

These Days, Lucy Caldwell (Faber, £12.99)

Although I like to believe, Waughishly, that writing is an exercise in language, it certainly helps to have an underexplored subject, and the Belfast Blitz is, to my knowledge, the focus of only one other work of fiction: Brian Moore’s exceptional 1965 novel The Emperor of Ice-Cream. Caldwell has, in other words, chosen a patch of land largely uncluttered, but with a massive end-of-level boss in one corner.

She withstands the challenge. The theme raised by MacNeice’s title — of both stasis and opportunity — is felt by several of the central characters, a comfortably middle-class family in East Belfast’s leafy Circular Road. Twentysomething sisters Audrey and Emma, the twin centres of the book, both feel it. Emma, withdrawn and isolated, asks herself “who you are, and how you should be living your life”. 

Audrey, who in opposition to Emma is “ready for life to begin!”, nonetheless reflects on “the ways we blindly go through a life in which the grooves are already set”. Mother Florence, for her part, isn’t “unhappy, nor ungrateful with her lot: just bemused that this has turned out to be it”.

All will be shaken out of their thinking by the way life happens when you are making other plans. For Audrey, the catalyst is her imminent marriage to an eminently marriageable doctor, which means “I’m going to be Dr Graham’s wife. Whoever she might be.” (This seems a nice nod to another Brian Moore novel, I am Mary Dunne, where a thrice-married woman’s changing names means she is never quite sure who she is.) For Emma, it will be a taboo relationship she falls into almost by accident. For Florence, and the rest of Belfast, it will be Hitler’s bombs.

The centrepiece of the novel is, of course, in the horror of the Blitz. Caldwell is excellent at widening and narrowing her gaze, like the shutter of a camera opening and closing. Audrey’s walk across the city in the aftermath of the heaviest night of bombing gives us the widescreen view, and then short focus is provided with Caldwell’s excellent eye for the right detail: undertakers’ horses running wild through the streets; a volunteer in a market-turned-mortuary “chalking onto the sides of each coffin its contents”. (Curiously, in a novel set in 1941, contemporary trends like the absence of speech marks and a mostly present tense narrative look almost like anachronisms.)

There are, to be sure, some too-on-the-nose touches — Audrey rescues a young child, and Emma a kitten — but the book hits its marks effectively, achieves a subtlety in its characterisation, and captures well the existential dread of turning a corner to find no street where a street should be: particularly if it’s the one you live in. The inevitable contemporary parallels as we wake from one nightmare (“the official plea … all over the city, is to Stay at Home if You Can”) and slip into another with fewer masks and more bombs, are just an additional sweetener.

The second book — and second collection of stories — from Colin Barrett, eight years after his first, doesn’t show development so much as a doubling down into what he’s already proved himself to be good at. If his first collection Young Skins showed some debt to the genre-redefining Kevin Barry, then Barrett’s new book Homesickness even carries a quote by Barry on the cover to remind us of the link.

That genre is the modern Irish male short story, characterised by blends: incipient violence delivered with a blarneyish linguistic lilt; doltish but threatening comic figures; hectic crosstalk in dialogue that drums down the page without getting us anywhere. 

And all this is rendered in the sort of quirkiness-aforethought detail that seeks wryness as its dominant mode: so the third story, “The Alps” opens as follows: “A Hitachi Hiace with piebald panelling, singing suspension and a reg from the last millennium rolled into the carpark of the Swinford Gaels football club late on a Friday evening.”

Homesickness, Colin Barrett (Jonathan Cape, £14.99)

We go on to meet the Alps, three brothers, “shortish men with massive arses and brutally capable forearms”, who then indulge in the blend of comedy and violence mentioned above. Barrett’s style in this story — telling not showing — is not just forgivable but desirable when delivered with such aplomb; but the fact that the wit delivered at the brothers’ expense comes not from another character but from the author does give it a lightweight, unearned air, especially when his maximalist choices make Barrett look like a writer who never met an adverb he didn’t like. 

Still, there’s no denying his way with a one-liner, both in observation (“dogs always look sorry for something”, in “The Ways”) or dialogue (“You took an awful fucking chunk out of him for a fella you weren’t aiming for”, in “A Shooting in Rathreedane”).

Yet the title is the only ostentatious thing about it

More all-round successful, however, are the stories narrated in the first or close third person, particularly those featuring writers, such as “The Low, Shimmering Black Drone” and “Anhedonia, Here I Come”. In the latter, our writer hero finds himself at the right end of an act of “sudsy fellatio”, only for the interaction to be concluded with a wheedling request from his benefactor to look at a couple of his stories. “Could I just get your email or maybe a follow back?” That’s one way to establish the writer’s stratum in the hierarchy of life.

An early contender for strange title of the year must be Adrian Duncan’s third novel, The Geometer Lobachevsky, which to begin with I found impossible to remember (Lobster something, was it?) but ultimately couldn’t stop rolling around in my mouth. Yet the title is the only ostentatious thing about it. If Colin Barrett sometimes seems in love with the sound of his own voice, then Duncan appears interested in excising any curlicues or flourishes from his prose until it is a simple, elegant, reflective surface.

This is not so surprising from someone who was previously an engineer, and has made a name as a writer interested in things as much as in people. His cool, lucid style and attention not just to what is going on but how his characters perceive what is going on, remind me of the work of Gerald Murnane. That is, he’s very good, but not for everyone.

The Geometer Lobachevsky, Adrian Duncan (Tuskar Rock, £14.99)

The new novel is about a Russian mathematician — or geometer — named Nikolai Lobachevsky, a descendant of the historical figure of the same name and profession. Our Lobachevsky is in Ireland in the 1950s, carrying out a land survey, when he learns that he may be in trouble back home; and so he acquires a Polish passport and lies low. 

The substance of the book describes — reports — Lobachevsky’s interactions with colleagues and experiences of the surroundings and climate (such as the “electronic moment” of a lightning strike). It’s a quiet book, until suddenly it isn’t, and the ending is sufficiently dramatic that for a moment it feels like a normal novel. 

Don’t be fooled. At one point Lobachevsky, when seeing the excitement with which an Irish colleague reads the newspaper, infers that “I am missing most of what is absorbing in this news”. It would be possible to do the same with The Geometer Lobachevsky, but its secrets are worth searching for.

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