An Irish journey around the Sydney Writers’ Festival

The Sydney Writers’ Festival ended over a week ago, and I thought it might be too late to write about it, until I received an email this week from the Artistic Director, Jemma Birrell, with a summary of the books fest, a newsletter titled “It’s a Wrap.”
She quoted Irish author, Emma Donoghue (photo above), who said in her Closing Address: “When you challenge your readers, you also need to comfort them.”
Emma Donoghue was one of the writers we found comforting, in an interesting conversation with Suzanne Leal, about her latest novel, Frog Music (Picador), a tale about an unsolved crime in San Francisco in 1876. It features a burlesque dancer, Blanche; her lover, Arthur, and his mate, Ernest, and the murder of an eccentric young woman, cross dresser and frog hunter, Jenny Bonnet. Blanche, Arthur and Ernest are former stars of the Parisian Circus, and Donoghue peppers her novel with lots of French words and songs from the period. She has song notes in the back of the novel, along with a glossary of the French words, but in most cases Blanche translates for her friend Jenny, and the reader, of course.
It’s a great read, and Emma Donoghue, like most Irish people (she now lives in Canada), has the gift of the gab. She admits: “There’s a bad mother in me,” and drops off her kids at school and can’t wait to get back to writing. But she loves her children as well, and has written Room (Picador), a novel shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2011, in which a mother lives with her 5-year-old son in a room 11 feet by 11 feet. She was a good mother, keeping her son Jack safe from the man who has taken her prisoner, but Emma found writing about Blanche and the way she treated her baby was a relief. She told Goodreads website she had never been able to escape from Room: “Not only has it been continuous publicity since Room came out, but I’ve been working on the screenplay as well. So working on Blanche and her many moments of low, nasty hostility to her baby was, indeed, a great contrast.”
So a session with Emma Donoghue led me to sing a song of praise for Frog Music, and my wife Gillian and I continued on our Irish path through the Sydney Writer’s Festival, heading to another fascinating discussion with another Irish author, Eimear McBride, whose novel, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, has set the literary world a buzzing.
Like Emma Donoghue, Eimear McBride (photo above) had an excellent interviewer (I can’t stand the word “facilitator”), Geordie Williamson, the chief literary editor of The Australian, who began the session with the comment that A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (Text) is “a book like no other,” and asked her to read an excerpt. I’d suggest you watch this brief video of Eimear McBride reading a passage of her book on Faber and Faber’s YouTube Channel. It really gives you the flavour of the novel.
If you’ve just watched it, yes, the book does have a Joycean feel about it. McBride said she spent a lot of time searching for her voice, and then she read James Joyce when she was 25. It’s a story about a girl growing up in rural Ireland until the age of 20, with a religious mother (not surprising in Catholic Ireland), a molesting uncle, a brain-damaged brother and a brutal adolescence during which she was subjected to sexual abuse.
The language is uncompromising. Here the girl gets angry at her mother (and a statuette of the Virgin Mary) for disparaging her brother’s intelligence:
“I don’t want to. I don’t want to. Hear that. I shout stop that. Saying. Believing that. Always saying stupid things about him. She says will you calm yourself. No I won’t. No. No. He’s fine. That’s awful to say. Well that tumour could’ve done more harm than we. Stop. I belt young Virgin Mary on the dashboard. Take it. Take that. Take that.”
It’s a dark Joycean stream of consciousness, blending with a bit of Beckett. She gave a hint of how to read the book during the Festival session: “Full stops encompass a lot of life experience.” She also mentioned that “commas are overrated.” Eimear McBride said she was looking for a new way to tell the old stories about Catholic misery, and was also influenced by Edna O’Brien, whose The Country Girls broke new ground about the repressive treatment of Irish women, sexual matters and social issues in Ireland.
It took nine years for A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing to make it to print, with publishers saying it was unmarketable, while acknowledging the quality. The owner of their local bookshop in Norwich, England asked to read it as he was thinking of starting his own press in 2011. Two years later, his Galley Beggar Press published it, and an influential critic, Adam Mars-Jones, praised it in the London Review of Books and it took off from there, eventually winning the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize in November 2013.
Eimear McBride is working on a similar book now, with “an evolution of the style.” A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is not an easy read, but it’s worth the effort.
And last but not least, our third Irish author, John Connolly (photo above by Mark Condren), born in Dublin, took to the stage of the Richard Wherrett Studio in the Sydney Theatre to regale us with a history of the crime novel from Dashiell Hammett to Raymond Chandler and Patricia Highsmith and Agatha Christie, to name just a few.
Jon Page, the general manager of Pages & Pages Booksellers, had an easy job as facilitator (ugh, that word!) with Connolly standing at the podium at first, then moving around the stage while speaking quickly and eloquently, as you’d expect of an Irish writer.
My wife and I have been big fans of Connolly since his first novel, Every Dead Thing (Hodder & Stoughton), featuring the former New York City detective, Charlie Parker, hunting the killer of his wife and daughter. He’s just published his 12th Charlier Parker novel, The Wolf in Winter (Hodder & Stoughton), and they keep getting better. The first time I heard him speak was in the Stanton Library in North Sydney in the early 2000s, promoting Every Dead Thing and its first sequel. He talked about his days as a freelance journalist for the Irish Times (he still writes the occasional piece for them) and how one gruesome murder he covered led him to write about such details in his novels. Connolly now divides his time between his native city, Dublin, and the United States, where his Parker novels are set.
The Charlie Parker books are well written and hard to put down. I was surprised to read a review of The Wolf in the Winter in the Sydney Morning Herald by Sue Turnbull which mentioned Connolly’s “often arcane prose.” Arcane means “mysterious, secret and understood by only a few,” according to the Macquarie Dictionary, and I would argue that while his prose is mysterious (he is writing about mysteries), it certainly is easy to understand. Sue Turnbull questions Connolly’s description of the character of Charlie Parker’s “ageing sidekick Angel” as ‘… mortality shadowed him like a falcon mantling its wings over dying prey.’ This is not your usual urbane crime fiction.”
John Connolly is not trying to write your usual urbane crime fiction. He writes about religious sects like the Familists in England and how they settled in Maine to do dark deeds in his latest novel, and a similar sinister organisation, the Fellowship, which murdered a religious community and buried them in a mass grave in northern Maine in his third Parker book, The Killing Kind (Hodder & Stoughton). Here’s some prose from that novel. I’ll let you judge if it’s arcane or not: “I went to Angel. A smear of blood lay across the width of his plastic shield, where it had fallen against his wound. Carefully, I lifted it away so that it would not stick. His gun was still in his hand, and his eyes were open, watching the figure out in the water. ‘He should have burned,’ he said. ‘He will burn,’ I replied.”
In an entertaining 40 minute lecture, Connolly covered everyone from the stylish Raymond Chandler in The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye to Ross Macdonald, crime writing’s poet of empathy and compassion in The Chill, to George V Higgins, the Balzac of Boston, and his The Friends of Eddie Coyle. In an anthology co-edited by Connolly and Declan Burke, Books To Die For, famous crime writers discuss their favourite mystery novel. The late and great crime novelist Elmore Leonard said in his essay: “It doesn’t get any better than Eddie Coyle.”
After the session, we went to get The Wolf in Winter signed. John Connolly could tell we were big fans when my wife asked him about whether he had a whole scenario in mind, as he was writing about his father’s death in the Parker novels. Immediately, he reached into a box and said: “You are old fans, you deserve something special.” He handed us a copy of I Live Here, a memoir of his early encounters with the supernatural and a meeting with an older woman with a query about a haunted house – a little pamphlet specially bound and signed by the author: copy 908 of 1000.
A special gift from a special writer: it was the perfect way to end our Irish journey around the Sydney Writers’ Festival.

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