Book Review Irish Examiner

Book reviews: Irish Examiner: Three stand-outs in a stellar year of releases

Alannah Hopkin selects her books of the year, among them Mary Morrisy’s ‘Penelope Unbound’; a large format photo book of Kinsale, and the immensely readable Booker Prize winner, ‘Prophet Song’

Fri, 15 Dec, 2023 - 14:00

Mary Morrissy has done a great deal of research into the lives of Joyce and Nora for her novel ‘Penelope Unbound’. Picture: Denis Scannell

It is in a unique category of its own, which I suppose must be called speculative fiction, that is to say, fiction that plays games with the facts, and imagines an alternative reality. 

It is also engagingly funny, using Nora’s naïve but often shrewd point of view to poke fun at the pretensions of late Victorian society in Dublin and Trieste.

Joyce set Ulysses on June 16 to commemorate the first time he went out with the high-spirited young beauty from Galway. Nora was working as a chamber maid at Finn’s Hotel near Trinity College when she first met the cheeky former student. 

Joyce soon persuaded Nora to travel abroad with him where he hoped to find a job teaching English. Arriving in Trieste penniless, Joyce left Nora outside the railway station with their luggage while he went to look for money. 

He ran into trouble, leaving Nora alone all day and the following night in a city where she knew nobody and didn’t speak the language. 

In real life she waited for him: the novel asks the question what if she hadn’t? Where could she have gone and what would become of her?

Penelope Unbound by Mary Morrissy.

The novel’s answer is ingenious and rings entirely true. 

Mary Morrissy, who has published three award-winning novels based on historical characters, has done a great deal of research into the lives of Joyce and Nora, and uses it to imagine her way into Nora’s head, and show us Nora’s impressions of Trieste society, as she carves out a niche for herself. 

The Penelope of the title refers to Ulysses’ wife in the epic poem ‘The Odyssey’, who waited at home for his return, unlike Joyce’s Nora who made her own way in the world. She has many battles with the Italian language, describing its speakers as “divils for dragging the arse out of words”.

Mary Morrissy’s Nora is a winner, and ends up back in Dublin as the owner of Finn’s Hotel where she once worked as a chambermaid. When Joyce, who has had an alternative life of his own and is now an operatic tenor, comes to the city to give a recital, the scene is set for a reunion with intriguing possibilities. It is a memorable, funny, and thoroughly enjoyable read.

I was one of the many people cheering when Paul Lynch won the Booker Prize for his fifth novel,  Prophet Song (Oneworld, €15.99). I reviewed it for this paper in September, describing it as “one of the most important novels of 2023”. 

I remember thinking at the time how fitting it would be if such a strong and memorable novel won the Booker Prize, but assumed that would never happen because (a) it’s compellingly readable, like a thriller and (b) it is told largely from the point of view of a middle-class female character on maternity leave, so there’s a lot of domesticity in it. 

But I’m delighted to be proved wrong, and to congratulate the Booker Prize judges on their decision and to enjoy seeing such a talented writer get his big break.

Up to now, I had not liked Lynch’s work very much, finding the heightened poetic language over-wrought and off-putting. But here his sometimes strangely constructed sentences seem to hit just the right note for the story they tell. 

Eilish, microbiologist and mother of four, is the perfect character through which to experience the strange times in which Dublin is gradually transformed by a tyrannical government into a war zone.

Paul Lynch won the Booker Prize for his fifth novel, ‘Prophet Song’.

It starts quietly enough, on a dark winter’s night when a pair of strangers call to the door of Eilish’s suburban house, looking for her husband, Larry, an official of the Teachers’ Union of Ireland. 

Larry has already been taken in for questioning and does not reappear. A national emergency is declared, and there is talk of internment.

The care with which the author describes these changes for the worse is important in forestalling any political assumptions on the reader’s part. The politics are not important, what matters is the human drama. 

Eilish’s sister urges her to flee with her children to Canada, but her husband and her eldest son have already gone missing, and she has a vulnerable elderly father to consider. It is hard to put the book down as life for Eilish and the children turns from bad to worse, until ultimately she loses control of her destiny.

Prophet Song is an extraordinary demonstration of the power of fiction to create empathy for those living through horrors beyond our everyday experience, as witnessed nightly on TV screens. 

It’s a tough, disturbing book, whose story of a society blown apart by war has universal appeal.

I may be biased because I live there, but John Collins’ large format photographic book,  Kinsale Light and Time (Atrium — Cork University Press, €29) has to be one of my books of the year, if only for its sheer beauty. 

Kinsale Light and Time by John Collins.

John is passionate about photography, and has been developing his expertise for many years, having published a book of underwater photography in temperate waters, and a smaller book of black and white photos of Kinsale simply entitled Shortcut. 

He is also a genius lighting designer for Kinsale’s Rampart Players, while the “day job” consists in running the Kinsale pharmacy with his wife, Caoilfhionn. 

The Kinsale book is the fruit of some 40 years of living in and photographing the town, the inner and outer harbour, and the community as they follow the annual calendar from Christmas lights to the August bank holiday regatta and beyond. 

His love of the sea, whether on it, under it, or gazing at it from near or far, is everywhere evident. 

Like most good photographers, John is often up at dawn to capture the sensational light effects, and still snapping away at sunset for a different class of light show. 

“Creating photographs at first light nurtures awe and wonder like no other time,” he writes in the opening essay.

John has long been a student of the art of photography, and he is by nature a thoughtful man.

 There are quotes that have inspired him over the years on a page of their own, from Fox Talbot to Cartier Bresson to Paul Simon, whose song ‘Kodachrome’ makes the cut, along with Dorothea Lange: “Photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still.” 

There are eight original essays by John, starting with a consideration of Light and Time, “the essential ingredients for photography”. 

Others look at Kinsale’s history, its maritime traditions, the coming of colour photography, and the sinking of the Lusitania. In short, the book provides hours of happy browsing through memorable images, with food for thought in between.

Perhaps one of the most unusual photos in the book is a pair of unescorted elephants calmly taking their place among the traffic in Kinsale’s Market Square in 2007 — a publicity stunt for a visiting circus, caught on camera by John directly outside the pharmacy where he was working. 

Being John, of course, he had a camera to hand, and it was a case of ‘Gotcha’.

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