Should we bluntly say that there are problems with this book, or should we, in the manner of the book itself say that, like the dough into which the weary-boned crone in the kitchen of the tired and time-eaten farmhouse forgets to put the yeast that will make the bread rise like a pheasant breaking cover from its scrub, the book falls flat too often to be satisfying? Say it straight, or meander like the sun-played stream that twists snakelike, sometimes poisonous, sometimes pure, ‘til it grows and finally reaches the great rising ocean, there are problems with this book.
Surprise, the first problem is the language in which it is written. (The first problem is actually the fact that it’s yet another book about being Irish. Being Irish in America “where everything is possible” and the nurse is Jamaican, the priest Polish, the criminal Swedish, the neighbour Greek . . . Being Irish in America when history – Larkin, the Lock-Out, de Valera, Collins, the Black and Tans (get it? –Black and Tans), Martin Luther King – is weighing upon you from every side. Oh, the sod-slicing weariness of it all.)
So let us pretend that the first problem is the language. In the first few chapters the word ‘like’ appears so many times that one might be forgiven for thinking that one was on the green line Luas to the Dundrum shopping centre. In school (in historical times, at least) we were taught about similes. If children are still being taught about similes, here is the handbook. There are moments of lyricism, but too much of anything is bad for you, and these are not always successful or appropriate. What should be one of the most dramatic scenes in the book is utterly undermined by the introduction of tadpoles, a trout, a continent, an elephant’s ear, a sack of grain, and some flowering gorse, to name but a few of the images employed in the course of the description. “Too many notes”, as Emperor Joseph said to Mozart. There is downright bad writing too. In one place it appears that Greta Garbo was clutching at one of the book’s characters in the film Queen Christina.
Do we forgive this writing and overwriting by saying that what we are hearing is the voice of an 89-year-old griefstricken woman? Only to a point. There is too much self-conscious artifice on view for the voice to be psychologically convincing. Like in the tattered hem of the beggarwoman’s mouldering petticoat, mended in the dim, nostalgic light of a turf fire, the stitches are all visible. An author must take ultimate responsibility for the polish of a work; otherwise why not publish the wandering and overblown words of any or every person with a story to tell? That’s called blogging, not literary fiction.
Here the appropriate phrase might be ‘gilding the lily’. Apt enough, one could say, considering the narrator’s name: Lilly Bere – pronounced ‘bear’. How can we be sure? Because here is another problem: the book has a distinctly contrived feel to it. The narrator is ‘Bere’, a bear features literally and metaphorically, one at the start and the other at the end of the book. The book opens with Lilly breaking a porcelain doll; later her grandson breaks some Belleek china; the men each bring books to their various wars; Bill draws a picture at school and later enacts that picture. And on it goes, like the echoes that sing, swooping and soaring, through the hills with the lonely goatherd.
There is a sense that the book on occasion is striving for an epic tone. Homer is there, as is the Bible, DNA, an apocalyptic dust storm, wars aplenty. To offset these, and demonstrate the ‘world in a grain of sand’ motif, we have fairy cakes, pecan pies, potatoes (of course), countless fish and birds, and small things generally. The ending, with its encroaching darkness mirroring the snow at the end of Joyce’s The Dead, aims for the heights, literally and metaphorically, but again, contrivance diminishes the impact. The dancing bear appears, its glass-studded collar glinting. But the dancing bear, we remind ourselves from the information at the start of the book, has no teeth or claws. Which unfortunately makes it an apt metaphor for this novel: unnaturally ornate, and safe.
Not a truly awful book, but a not a great book, and certainly not a book worthy of a prestigious literary prize, audition its heart out though it might on every page.