Reading the Contemporary Irish Novel 1987-2007.
"It is by no means clear what the big story of Ireland actually is," wrote Irish journalist Fintan O'Toole in a 2001 Irish Times essay, "or indeed that the whole notion of 'Ireland' as a single framework has any validity" (quoted in Harte 9). Liam Harte's insightful Reading the Contemporary Irish Novel 1987-2007 ventures some compelling answers to these dilemmas through a careful study of nine twentieth-century novelists who, in stylistically absorbing ways, weave "history, memory, and belonging" into the story of twenty-first century Ireland (3). As a volume in the Reading The Novel series edited by Daniel R. Schwarz, Harte's book succeeds in delivering to his intended audience--advanced undergraduates and graduate students--a lucid survey of the contemporary Irish novel by showcasing, in each chapter, the variety of literary responses to recent transformations in the Republic and Northern Ireland.
"Direct, close engagement with the individual texts matters more to me," writes Harte, "than elaborating a fixed critical position or adhering to a particular academic mandate" (2). An admirable method, to be sure, one Harte supplements with an abiding thematic focus: the persistence of trauma and aspirations toward recovery in novels about the Irish nation between 1987-2007, a period defined by accelerated, oft improbable, changes in Irish life. Harte's informative introduction succinctly maps out the historical grounds in which these novels and, by extension, his close readings take root. While economic stagnation, mass emigration, and sectarian violence defined the Irish experience in the 1980s and early 1990s, so Harte argues, a more prosperous and peaceful nation emerged in the late 1990s and 2000s for two main reasons. First, the Belfast Agreement of 1998 (and the subsequent power-sharing agreement in 2007) created frameworks for relative peace in Northern Ireland. Second, in the Republic, tax breaks, appeals to foreign investors, and shifts in political policy smoothed the way for a high-tech economy, one that boasted a 6.5% growth rate throughout the 1990s, earning it the robust appellation the "Celtic Tiger." "By the century's end," writes Harte, "Ireland Inc. was being touted as the poster child of globalization" (5).
And yet, Harte outlines how this pat story of transformation, from woebegone Eire in the 1980s to Celtic Tiger boom times in the 2000S, obscures a host of ongoing sociopolitical crises, the evidence here ranging from child sexual abuse by Catholic priests to ongoing poverty in rural counties. Consequently, Harte is drawn to writers who "find deficiencies in totalizing narratives of the past, refuse to fix the nation in unambiguous paradigms, and pose awkward, complex questions about the adequacy of nationality as a foundational fiction for the self" (3). The first chapter begins on March 27, 1987, the day Roddy Doyle's The Commitments first appeared in bookstores; subsequent chapters scrutinize works by John McGahern, Patrick McCabe, Colm Toibin, William Trevor, Edna O'Brien, Seamus Deane, and Sebastian Barry. The final chapter is on Anne Enright's The Gathering, which won the 2007 Man Booker prize. Each chapter includes a critical biography--particularly useful for those not familiar with recent Irish history--followed by scrupulous close readings of a major novel by each author that weaves in secondary materials pulled from the ranks of postcolonial and cultural criticism, feminism, and, most frequently (though not most surprisingly given the subject matter), psychoanalysis and trauma theory.
When writing about the overlap between the Irish nation and the "ideology of the nuclear family" (3), Harte is particularly insightful, arguing that the struggles of one family expose the uneven course of Ireland's economic and social development since the late 1980s. Take, for example, the case of the working-class Rabbitte family in Doyle's Barrytown trilogy, The Commitments (1987), The Snapper (1990), and The Van (1991). As Harte notes, the rollicking spirit of The Commitments, which focuses on Jimmy Rabbitte Jr.'s attempt to start an Irish soul band fashioned after James Brown and Wilson Pickett (among others), is but the comedic rise before a tragic fall in The Van. A more forlorn novel, The Van focuses on the trials of Jimmy's father, Jimmy Rabbitte Sr., an unemployed plasterer whose failed attempts to open a mobile chip shop brings the "recessionary realities of the late 1980s... more fully into focus, darkening the devil-may-care mood [in The Commitments] and complicating characters' attempts to improvise their way around personal and economic difficulties" (41). Harte's analysis reminds us that Doyle's vision of Barrytown, a fictional area in Dublin's Northside, recalls Joyce's evocation of paralysis in Dubliners. For both writers, individual aspiration and familial care are betrayed by inadequate opportunity and crippling financial need. In a similar vein, Harte's reading of Enright's The Gathering, a novel about child abuse told through the "post-traumatic testimonio" of Veronica Hegarty (222), argues that the late-century transformation in Irish society "is a narrative with the child as its central trope" (quoted in Harte 221); otherwise put, Harte underscores the point that late-century narratives of economic success cannot be disentangled from repressed histories of child abuse on a national scale (e.g., clerical abuse, revelations about the Magdalene laundries). Veronica's Celtic Tiger success--Tudor house, perfect marriage, new Saab--pitches off course after her brother's suicide. Veronica's mourning for her brother, a victim of abuse, is for Harte the expression of "a much larger grief and anger for the unacknowledged trauma endured by generations of unknown Irish bodies made abject by postcolonial nationalism" (234). For Doyle and Enright, the traumas experienced by the family expose the repressed histories and ongoing failures of the Republic itself--no amount of Celtic Tiger triumphalism, long since faded after the financial collapse of 2008, can obscure these legacies.
Harte's keen attention to the politics of literary style is the focus of two persuasive chapters about Northern Ireland: the first an excoriation of O'Brien's House of Splendid Isolation, the second an admiring reflection on transgenerational trauma in Deane's Reading in the Dark. Though one might wish that Harte had written about better novels by O'Brien--her seminal The Country Girls Trilogy is briefly discussed--or better novels about the Troubles, his withering criticism of O'Brien's novel is useful for readers unfamiliar with the debates about the lure of sentimentality in Troubles fiction. What grates on Harte is O'Brien's style. House of Splendid Isolation is written in a free indirect voice that seems to tacitly sympathize with the loathsome McGreevy, a stock IRA paramilitary character who is represented in such "starkly monolithic terms, [that] nuance and complexity leach away" from the novel (165), thus depriving the reader any critical vantage point from which to judge ethnic violence. The same goes for O'Brien's depiction of "maudlin, mistyeyed policemen" (167) who, along with the mythic depiction of IRA members, flatten the history of the Troubles into a battle of generic types. Deane's novel, on the other hand, succeeds precisely because its complex evocation of sectarian violence through the perspective of an adolescent boy in Derry distinguishes it for Harte (and for many others) as the Joycean bildungsroman of Troubles fiction.
Students and scholars of Irish literature, history, and culture will find much to admire in this wide-ranging book; not only is it an insightful complement to Harte's other monographs but also it is especially valuable to those teaching the Irish novel. His chapters about Toibin's The Heather Blazing and Barry's A Long Long Way, for example, showcase for undergraduates and beginning graduate students how and why contemporary writers infuse post-nationalist liberalism and cosmopolitan individualism into the sometimes too restrictive genre of historical fiction. As with any survey-of-the-field monograph, there are necessary exclusions, as Harte admits. A chapter about John Banville, who won the Man Booker prize in 2005 for The Sea, would not be entirely out of place, nor would a brief conclusion about Irish fiction published after the financial collapse of 2008, such as Emma Donoghue's masterful Room (2010) or Donai Ryan's searing The Spinning Heart (2012). This is not so much a criticism of Harte's book as an observation that his roster could be shifted in interesting ways in the classroom, just as it could be expanded to include the wealth of recent Irish crime fiction by writers such as Tana French and Benjamin Black (Banville's alter ego). In sum, Harte's book is a provocative addition to a wealth of writing in and about contemporary Ireland.
University of Massachusetts Boston
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2018|
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