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Notes from a Coma by Mike McCormack

Notes from a Coma by Mike McCormack (US cover: Soho Press, 2013)

Notes from a Coma by Mike McCormack is a fantastic and unusual novel that strives to break many of the ‘rules’ of novel writing and gets away with it. On the surface, the story is about a troubled young man who decides to volunteer to be placed in a coma for three months as part of a public test of an experimental new form of imprisonment. But underneath, it’s a story about so much more: the slow strangulation of small rural communities through lack of opportunity; a commentary on the pervasive culture of low expectations in Irish life; and, an astute observation of the subtle ways a European legislative agenda has come to almost seamlessly and invisibly overwrite Ireland’s political life and process.

Mike McCormack tells the story brilliantly through the voices of five participants in the events described, but not through the eyes of the central character, JJ O’Malley  — something that appears to be a sly comment on the individual’s ability to influence their own life in the modern world, as well as breaking one of the cardinal rules of the novel.  We get JJ’s father’s concerned bewilderment, the voice of a well-meaning older generation unable to understand the half of their children’s world; his neighbor’s essential decency, the voice of the community in a sense; his old teacher’s tolerant hope, the (naturally clichéd) voice of modernism, of progress; his girlfriend’s approving passivity, the voice of hopeful but clueless youth; and the local politician’s cynical choreography of the whole situation so it reflects well on himself, without requiring him to actually poke his neck out of his profoundly conservative shell. The storytellers are wonderfully written, verbally colorful, distinct, even funny, and they give the voice of the novel the light, humane, entertaining feel that is the hallmark of good conversation in Ireland. As the old joke goes, the Irish can tell you to go to hell in such a way that you’re actually looking forward to the trip, and Mike McCormack has this ability in spades.

The other ‘half’ of the novel (although it probably accounts for less than 5% of the word-count) is made up of the ‘notes’ from the coma, footnotes that take a more academic, higher-level view of the coma project: an experiment to test the viability of putting prisoners into comas for the duration of their sentences, thus removing the ability of prisons to harden their population into master criminals, and reducing to overall cost of incarceration to the government. The voice of these footnotes is that of a slightly unhinged academic gleefully commenting on his work. Why many reviewers have praised the novel but felt the need to caution readers that it’s necessary to push through these footnotes as if they’re your necessary daily dose of fiber is beyond me. McCormack finds an erudition and lightness to this strand of the tale that belies the cold calculus of the economics of incarceration, and enables to novel to succeed as entertainment where it could have felt didactic.

The story of JJ O’Malley’s life that gently emerges is a sly mirror image of modern Ireland’s relationship with Europe: his adoption from central Europe, acceptance into the local community, the adoption of Irish ways and perspectives, leading to a existential struggle to know what to do with himself, indeed how to even think of himself. The Irish adapted to the great European experiment quickly, gratefully accepting the money and resources that flowed into the economy, but carried on as they always had done. Ireland is now struggling with the bill for those years, and must confront questions of national identity in a way that it hasn’t since independence.

JJ O‘Malley is blessed/cursed with an strong mind, but nothing particular to turn it to, except himself, and the riddles of his own existence. While others numb themselves with work, drink, or religion, JJ voices the endless questions and drives himself to a nervous breakdown. There’s probably a lot of Irish people who would welcome a few months away from worrying about their mortgage, their debts, their failing business. JJ O’Malley doesn’t offer a way out of our economic crisis, but he is an apt metaphor for the post-boom Irish psyche.

Irish lit is full of what I think of as “Directionless-young-bollixs-on-the-tear” novels. Inarticulate young men with nothing much to do, except feign cynicism and drown their uncertainty in drink. Every Irish male writer seems to need to get one of these books out of his system before going on to more original things. McCormack turns the genre on its head in many subtle and refreshing ways: JJ isn’t cynical at all, he’s disarmingly earnest; he’s a profoundly gentle soul, who turns the impotent rage inwards and thinks himself into an asylum, rather than going on a destructive rampage; and he has perhaps the most-decent father in the history of Irish literature. JJ is far more articulate than the average directionless-young-bollix, but perhaps his articulacy, coupled with his ability to appreciate every side of the story, every point of view, is as much of a problem as the inability to express himself?

Ireland has a suicide problem; whether to a greater or lesser degree than other countries I have no idea, nor do such comparisons matter. The apparent causes change from era to era — currently these can be summarized roughly as jobless young men in rural counties, farmers at the end of their credit, and teenage girls suffering online bullying — but the state of affairs has endured at least since the exodus from the countryside to the growing cities began, and probably much longer. You can read JJ’s decision as a temporary suicide, and the agonizing of his family and friends reads much like that of the bereaved, only without the raw, inescapable pain. The feeling is that the family, the community, even the enjoyment of life itself is diminished for those left behind when one person chooses to leave their company prematurely. That this leave-taking is not permanent, nor even the strange indefinite absence of emigration, appears to leave no less confusion. JJ’s enigmatic explanation for his decision (“I want to take my mind off my mind for a while.”) is as difficult for his family and friends to understand as silence. After suicide, everyone asks “Why?” McCormack’s novel seems to suggest that even if suicides could answer, we might not understand their reasoning any better.

Originally published before the Celtic Tiger sickened and died, Notes from a Coma reflects some of the contemporary undercurrents that the Irish are now bemoaning: a political system that strives to maintain the status quo and appease Europe, the dearth of opportunity for an educated population, an uncritical mass media that avoids uncomfortable questions. In those respects, Notes from a Coma now reads like a novel ahead of its time. It’s interesting that the book received a strong critical reception on publication (during the boom years), but poor sales. Five years later — after the bust of 2008 — it was being hailed by some as “the greatest Irish novel of the decade.” Now Mike McCormack is experiencing a bit of a comeback, with his first book, the collection of short stories Getting it in the Head, being republishing, a new volume of stories, Forensic Songs, out now, and Notes from a Coma finding a publisher in the US for the first time. Perhaps in the future this will come of be regarded as one of the touchstone novels of this period of Irish life?

An interview with Mike McCormack

This short interview was recorded as part of Poitics & Prose Bookstore’s reading series.


Milk, Sulphate and Alby StarvationMilk, Sulphate and Alby Starvation was Martin Millar’s first published novel. In the US, it appears that we are getting Millar’s books in something like a reverse order, starting with the brilliant The Good Fairies of New York, then the equally enjoyable Lonely Werewolf Girl and Suzy, Led Zeppelin & Me. After these three wonderful books, Millar’s US publisher, Softskull Press, brought us the sordid tale of Alby Starvation.

It’s been worth the wait, because Millar’s trademark focus on the poor, the dreamers and the slightly unhinged is evident in his first novel. Small-time speed dealer Alby Starvation has unwittingly become something of a minor celebrity because he’s given up milk and found this has (somewhat) improved his health and wellbeing. Unfortunately, the milk marketing board is not pleased. They blame the publicity surrounding Alby’s “cure” for depressing the sales of milk, and given that profits must be maintained, they hire a hitwoman to assassinate him. (This was written at the height of “Greed is Good” conservatism in the 1980s, when government agencies hiring thugs to do away with the inconvenient poor didn’t seem like much of a stretch.)

Alby is far from a saint or a anyone’s idea of a hero, but he does have a circle of friends and acquaintances in Brixton (at the time the last refuge for the young, wanna-be-gifted and broke in London) who depend on him for one thing or another — mostly a quick fix — but also for a more basic human need, companionship.  This motley cast — drug addicts, dreamers, depressed shop managers, more-successful drug dealers, and a treasure-hunting professor — provide much of the charm and amusement of the novel with their dogged pursuit of various crazy dreams and schemes. The Good Fairies of New YorkAnyone who enjoyed Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity (the book, not the movie) will enjoy the obsessive, slightly maladjusted personalities that populate Milk, Sulphate and Alby Starvation. Fans of The Good Fairies of New York will recognize Millar’s habit of showing us each character’s cherished plan or their tentative steps at living life on their own terms, and then gradually bringing each closer together until their individual paths either interlock in something approaching harmony or knock somebody else’s dream completely out of orbit.

Even though this is an early novel and some scenes and plotlines are a little raw, Milk, Sulphate and Alby Starvation still contains everything I love about Martin Millar, his warmth, his clear-eyed view of the basic decency of most people, his love of the dreamers who dare to look to improve their lot in life, and his ability to laugh at the insanity of our world.


Martin Millar’s blog.

Martin Millar’s latest book is Curse of the Werewolf Girl.

I helped interview Martin Millar over at jennIRL.

Disclosure: I received a review copy of Milk, Sulphate & Alby Starvation from the publisher.

Review: Countdown by Deborah Wiles

Franny Chapman is eleven and her world is falling apart. The world is transfixed by the Cuban Missile Crisis. They have nuclear attack drills at school, her Uncle is obsessed by communists and wants to build a bomb shelter in the middle of their lawn, her older sister is away at college, her best friend has suddenly become her enemy, but most of all, Franny is really, really nervous about her first boy-girl party.

Deborah Wiles deftly weaves speeches, song lyrics and pictures from 1962 to create an immersive tapestry of a pivotal year in American history. Kids who prefer realistic novels will love Countdown because the writing puts you firmly in Franny’s shoes, while the documentary passages and images between chapters teaches you all you need to know (and probably all Franny did know) about the politics and current events of the time. Countdown‘s many pictures and innovative layout should appeal to reluctant readers and kids increasingly used to finding information online. The novel’s fast pace and child’s eye view gives the reader the feeling of being in a moving vehicle hurtling towards disaster, and while you sense you should and maybe could do something to avert disaster, you just don’t know how to drive yet.

Countdown is the first in a projected trilogy of novels about the sixties by Wiles, and I can’t wait to read the next, and discuss it with my kids.


Countdown was named an Okra Pick by the Southern Independent Bookseller’s  Association.

Deborah Wiles’ resources relating to the world of 1962, including a playlist of music featured in the book and the original “Duck and Cover” video that explained nuclear attack to school children.

Deborah Wiles tells us about Countdown in her own words:

The news that Richard Bausch has been award a Dayton Literary Peace Prize for his novel Peace, made me dig through the archives for the blurb I wrote for it last year.

Peace is the intense story of the long night of the soul faced by a  three American GIs when their sergeant casually murders an Italian civilian while on patrol behind enemy lines in the last year of WWII. Their struggle to do the right thing, to understand whether one more killing makes a difference during the insanity of war, reflects our own uneasiness at the messiness of conducting a war, no  matter how justified, and shows that though the technology of war and the speed of reporting it may have changed, the basic moral confusion and chaos remains. This will be of great interest to  military history buffs, military families, as well as lovers of fine writing. Peace is strong liquor; a visceral, intense reading  experience, which brings on a mellow reflectiveness.

I’m glad to see it winning the award.

Sarah Hall’s Booker-nominee How to Paint a Dead Man is brilliant, there’s really no other word for it. It’s also idiosyncratic like only great art can be, and is likely to be something of a love it or hate it novel.

htpdmThe novel intertwines the stories of four artists: Giorgio, a reclusive still life artist in 1960’s Italy; Peter, an iconoclastic landscape painter who was obsessed by Giorgio’s work in his youth; Susan, Peter’s daughter, a budding photographer; and, Annette, once a talented student of Giorgio’s, now struck blind at a young age.  Hall skillfully employs a different narrative style for each story. Giorgio’s story unfolds in the first person through the translation of a journal kept during his final years. Annette and Peter’s stories are told through traditional third-person narration. Susan’s chapters provide the most-impressive stylistic pyrotechnics, as she is the surviving member of a set of twins, and consequently her story is told in the second person. The tone is of one who has been carrying on a conversation for years, and suddenly finds herself alone, but can’t stop holding up her side of the dialogue:

“You aren’t feeling like yourself. You haven’t been feeling like yourself for a while now, not since the accident. More accurately, not since the moment you heard about it. That morning, that minute, holding the phone to your ear and hearing your father say those horrific words; it was then you felt the change, then when you were knocked out of kilter.”

The connecting themes of the narrative stands is how to live as an artist, how to combine your passion and move in the contemporary world, how to combine your inner vision with the often hostile or opposing realities of the outside world. For the non-artist reader, this is of course a metaphor for the oldest theme in literature: how to be, how to move through the world. Giorgio has lived through the fascist years, has seen art twisted to meet the demands of the state and nonconformists punished and killed. His reaction was to reject society and live simply in order to learn to see things as they truly are and, through repetition and practice, capture this on canvas. His subject matter over the decades was a series of still-lives of blue bottles and other household objects.  Critics have come to be as interested in his privacy as in his seemingly simple art. Giorgio, however, is not a stereotypical recluse, rejecting or overwhelmed by the modern world; instead, he has always been interested in and aware of the changing tides of politics, art and fashion. However, to him they are secondary to the development of his sight, his perspective, his artistic vision:

“Often I tell visitors, who come and who sit uncomfortably in their city garments, to be heedless of the train timetables. I invite them to remain past the hour of their appointment, to take some wine and sit outside and relax. Take your hand from your wrist, I tell them. Listen to this greater pulse, to the lowing of cattle and the beating of wings against the winds.”

Naturally, his wisdom and truth is rarely theirs, and few truly understand what he’s attempting to say.

One who would have understood, had they ever met, is Peter. As an idealistic young artist in the 1960s, Peter writes to Giorgio about his art, and Giorgio recognizes a kindred spirit. Peter walks the path of any self-conscious artist of the time, living the hippie experience to the full, traveling, experimenting with drugs, before settling down in a loving marriage, moving to a remote part of the north of England and devoting himself to landscape painting. Like Giorgio, Peter rejects the pre-packaged comforts of the consumer society in order to expand his own vision, his personal understanding of the world through art.

Sarah Hall, author of How to Paint a Dead Man

To me, Peter and Giorgio are interesting, wise and very appealing characters, but both somewhat archetypal: the artist as reclusive visionary – and that’s how I think Sarah Hall intends them to be seen. The most interesting characters and storylines are in the paths taken by the offspring of these artists: Peter’s children Susan and Danny, and Giorgio’s student Annette.

Danny and Susan grow up in very permissive surroundings; there are no boundaries, no rules and no polite lies for the sake of social conformity. To Danny, this is heaven. He is the life and soul of the party, an incredibly open, trusting and indulgent personality. For him, the question is, having seen how his parents have combined art and life so openly, honestly and successfully, how can he ever leave the fold and go out into the world? Ultimately, he cannot; he is a child who never grows up. Though he becomes a “found” artist, making sculptures out of scrap metal and the detritus of life, his real talent is for living, for friendship. When a road accident takes his life at a young age, hundreds come to his funeral. In the most basic sense, his way of life is his art. It can be argued, or course, that his art is never very deep or meaningful because he doesn’t go through any process of coming to understand what he’s trying to achieve, he doesn’t struggle with the question of what he wants to be, of why he’s an artist. He simply copies the aspects of his father’s unconventional lifestyle that appeal to him and has fun.

The question of reconciling life and art is a very real one for me – and probably for anyone likely to be drawn to this novel. Danny reminds me strongly of my own brother, a musician and artist who has chosen to live simply on his own terms in order to pursue his projects. He may not be famous, but I think he’s very successful in terms of what he sets out to do. In contrast, though I studied writing and film-making, I was far less single-minded. Ultimately I put my faith in something other than art.

Susan is much more worldly than Danny, although, like him, she doesn’t have a strong concept of her art. She’s a competent photographer, but conscious that she gets attention as much for being her famous father’s daughter as for her work’s merit. She’s dully aware of this, but it doesn’t become an issue until her brother dies, and all her certainties and complacent attitudes towards life die with him.  She embarks on a self-destructive affair as a means of distraction from the pain of separation. Fundamentally, she has nobody to talk to, because Danny was always the one who knew her best, the one whose approval she sought. Her faith wasn’t in the power of art to get her through life, it was in the certainty of Danny’s presence and approval, and she’s utterly unmoored when he dies.

Back in the 1960s, Annette is a high-school student whose talent Giorgio thinks highly of before she loses her eyesight. Afterwards, her horizons narrow to the confines of her mother’s fearful Catholicism and the familiar geography of her family’s house and the market where she works. Her mother is another recluse, a fearful woman convinced the devil, which she calls the Bestia, is out to destroy her, and consequently never leaves the house. Annette’s challenge is whether to internalize her mother’s fear and accept a constrained life after she goes blind, or embrace life, continue living in hope and working in the market despite the chance that people might take advantage of her lack of sight.

I find it interesting that some reviewers have omitted Annette from the company of artists struggling to build a life in this novel, or simply skipped over her story in their reviews. She’s a naïve teenager, struggling to reconcile a rather negative religious view of the world with her innate optimism, and the sense of joy, hope and redemption she finds in Christianity. The implicit parallels Hall appears to draw between artistic expression (the faith that a commitment to art as a way of life will see you through) and religious faith (the process of determining the balance point between one’s faith and one’s life) are subtle and not often raised. Should Annette become a nun, as her mother suggests, because the world is too dangerous for a young, blind woman? Should she find a way to live as normal a life as she can, trusting in a just and protective god, or stay at home fearing the ill intentions of the Bestia? [*Blogger KevinfromCanada makes the interesting point that Annette’s artistic endeavor is literally developing her inner vision.]

Annette greets life on her terms, in that sense her story parallels Danny’s, who greets life openly and “follows his bliss.” His choice of found art reflects this laissez-faire attitude, and contrasts with Peter and Giorgio, who go through years of searching and questioning before arriving at their respective understanding of their art.

Ultimately, it’s Susan’s story that opens and closes the book. The question is what can she find to replace Danny as the rock upon which she rebuilds her life? Like her father and Giorgio, she must come to terms with life and art, where one ends and the other begins. What sacrifices will she make to follow her path? The resolution may disappoint some readers because a) it’s something that happens to her, rather than something she chooses consciously, and b) it’s slightly ambiguous. I found it completely believable and very fitting. Again, this is probably due to the circumstances of my life and my choices; I fell in love and got married young (at least by the standards of my peers). So, in a sense, I placed my trust in love, not art. Across time, and without ever being aware of them, Susan comes to trust Giorgio’s words of wisdom, offered decades earlier: “If everything seems lost, I tell them, trust the heart.” I completely understood Susan’s feelings and the ending felt natural and justified. One could interpret the conclusion in terms of the parallels between art and religion explored in Annette’s story, but I can’t really go there without giving too much away.

HTPAintSuffice to say, How to Paint a Dead Man is a beautiful, heartfelt novel. Sarah Hall displays a technical virtuosity and narrative skill that wows you with her words, while her deft weaving of the various stories allows the bigger picture meditation on the difficulties of where to draw the line between art and life – more simply between work and home – to unfold naturally. Each storyline exists at its own time and place, but each episode subtly enriches the events of the last and highlights different choices, different priorities, and different outcomes.  It all boils down to a rich and perceptive meditation on the choices, accommodations and decisions we make in shaping a life, and is a joyful celebration of the pursuit of art, in whatever form one may choose.


Sarah Hall on How to Paint a Dead Man

Participate in the roundtable on How to Paint a Dead Man at Ed Champion’s Reluctant Habits blog

Natalie Sandison’s review in The London Times

One of the many websites of my brother, Stephen Rennicks, conceptual artist.

man booker logoThe Booker Prize is my favorite literary award. My annual goal is always to read the whole of the Booker longlist before the winner is announced. I never achieve that goal, but then the purpose of goals like that is aspiration. Why do I have this reverence for the Booker when I don’t attach any special significance to any other book award? The answer is that the Booker is inextricably tied up with my personal ‘Golden Age’ of reading, the time I woke up to the joys of reading for more than simple distraction.

As background, you should know that in secondary school in Ireland I devoured every book about WWII and Vietnam I could find, dipped into the usual science-fiction & fantasy classics (2001, The Lord of the Rings, etc.) and regurgitated the accepted interpretations of The Great Gatsby and The Old Man and the Sea for my final exams. I wasn’t a particularly good English student, but I enjoyed stories. After graduation, lacking any clear idea of what I wanted to do with my life and scratching the itch to travel, I moved to the north of England for college.

What I lacked in the way of intellectual stimulation from my classes (business and computers – it was the end of the 1980s, greed was good and computers were the thing to study) I found in the twin forces of the local WHSmith and The Late Show. Before you snigger too much, consider that I came from a small town without a bookstore. Discovering writers like Pynchon — then in the news with his ‘comeback’ novel Vineland — Eco and Rushdie, seemed to take the tropes of my escapist teenage reading and transform them into the social commentary of “real” literature.

bkofevidenceMy problem was that although I loved to read, I didn’t know a thing about “real” literature. I needed guidance and initially found it at WHSmith. I was an undiscriminating reader, devouring my share of Tom Clancy and Dean Koontz novels, but the merchandising decisions of my local WHSmith – the only bookstore in town – introduced me to many new authors and impressed the importance of the Booker Prize on my mind. Cardboard displays of the shortlist (the first year I remember saw Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day pitted against Banville’s Book of Evidence and Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, among others) looked terribly cool to my young self.

Having had the name ‘Booker Prize’ impressed on my mind, I then heard and saw it everywhere. Articles on the shortlist in the Sunday papers, editorial cartoon’s lamenting the “difficulty” of reading the Booker contenders and interviews with authors on The Late Show.

times arrowAt the time, the BBC was renowned for great arts programming, and I loved The Late Show, then hosted by future bestselling author Sarah Dunant (The Birth of Venus, Sacred Hearts) and future leader of Canada’s Liberal Party Michael Ignatieff (who later authored a Booker-nominee, Scar Tissue). The Late Show made me aware of the contemporary arts scene, giving authors and poets the cultural cachet of the indie rock stars with whom they shared the stage. Mainly, I think it was all the Booker hoopla that caught my imagination: the betting, the breathless marketing copy, the front-of-store displays and the entertaining reviews in the papers. Amis’ Time’s Arrow, a book I read because of a fabulously rancorous debate over its merits on some arts show, blew me away (but I haven’t dared go back to see if it still does). Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children was required reading for anyone interested in the arts, and debating the fatwa, whether you’d read The Satanic Verses or not, was a never-ending conversation among politically awakening students of for a time.

qmWith the controversies (Was James Kelman’s How Late it Was, How Late, an unreadable book? Was The Unconsoled a worthy follow-up to Remains of the Day?), the clever marketing and the consistently high quality of the books, the Booker was simply the most entertaining of literary prizes, and it still is. I’ll be online refreshing the Man Booker website to learn the shortlist on September 8, and I’m currently working my way through some of the long list (I enjoyed Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn, but Sarah Hall’s How to Paint a Dead Man is my favorite thus far.  Adam Foulds’ The Quickening Maze is beautifully observed and written, but I haven’t finished it yet, so more on that later.).

Although I can no longer watch the BBC arts shows dissect the nominees, the blogosphere provides plenty of discussion and commentary. Below are some links to blogs where readers are also working their way through the longlist and some especially interesting interviews with the nominated authors.


The 2009 Longlist

Interview with Sarah Hall, author of How to Paint a Dead Man

Farm Lane Books Blog — reading her way through the longlist

@Suejustbooks – a bookseller who doesn’t blog, but tweets her impressions

Both Eyes Book Blog – has reviewed several of the contenders

Review of Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn from the LA Times

And in the Indies Choice YA category, Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book overcame Cory Doctorow’s excellent Little Brother. Here’s how I handsell The Graveyard Book:

In this colorful tale — essentially a reworking of  The Jungle Book — a young boy is  raised by ghosts in a graveyard. As he grows, he discovers that certain ghost skills (like invisibility and haunting) are very useful in the real world, while others can be unhelpful. The Graveyard Book is one of the most-inventive novels of the year, a picturesque coming of age story that will appeal to both imaginative children and their parents.


In case the endorsement of knowledgeable booksellers from all over the US wasn’t enough, The Graveyard Book was recently awarded this year’s Newberry Medal by the American Library Association.

The inaugural Indies Choice Book Awards winners have been announced, and one of my favorites took the top fiction spot,  The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.

Here is my quick handselling spiel for Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

In order to keep their sanity during WWII, a group of islanders form a book club, and soon become closely entwined in each other’s lives. After the war, a female writer strikes up a correspondence with the group, and the resulting mosaic of letters teases out an illicit wartime romance, reveals a cache of unknown letters which may be by Oscar Wilde, and angers the local moral majority. This is an upbeat, entertaining and clever novel that will have you staying up late to finish. It’s  romantic, quirky, and a quick read with tons to ignite a good book club discussion.  Simply perfect summer reading.

I loved Lalia Lalami’s first book, Hope & Other Dangerous Pursuits. It’s either a novel or a collection of linked short stories — I’ve seen it called both — about four young Moroccans’ individual attempts to flee their homeland for the opportunities of Europe. It’s a fascinating book, full of vivid details about Moroccan life, and you feel like you know exactly why those characters make the decisions they do. Secret Son, Lalami’s new novel, focuses on one young man living in the slums of Casablanca who thinks his dreams are coming true when he discovers his biological father is a wealthy businessman. However, his changed circumstances strain his relations with his family and friends, and bring him unwelcome attention from a local Islamic group.

Lalami again surrounds us with the sights, sounds and smells of Morocco, but goes deeper into the circumstances of her protagonist’s life, and the political realities of Morocco at the present time. Youssef el-Mekki believes his father dead. He grows up poor, but with an unassailable sense of his place in the world stemming from the family history his mother teaches him. Everything comes crumbling down when he discovers his father is not only alive, but a wealthy industrialist. Despite his success in winning a place at college, Youssef has to scratch the itch of where he really comes from, and he contrives to meet him.

Nabil Amrani, Youssef’s father, harbors a secret pain: he has no sons, only a daughter away at college in the US. Initially Youssef is a blessing, the answer to his secret prayers. But, when his family learn of the son, conflict arises over the questions of inheritance and position others thought settled. Youssef must choose which parts of his impoverished, but rooted existence, to hold on to (if any) and how much he is prepared to risk chasing the dream of the opportunities and family life his distant father might provide.

The narrative drive of Secret Son is more ambitious than the relatively straightforward storytelling of Hope & Other Dangerous Pursuits, and the ending has a twist that feels perfectly real yet isn’t obvious from early on. All in all, Secret Son is a captivating story, told with fierce passion and acute understanding, which provides a vivid and eye-opening look inside contemporary Morocco.

Be sure to check out Lalia Lalami’s great blog. She recommends some fabulous books there.

Watch the book trailer for Secret Son

Lalia Lalami reads from Hope and other Dangerous Pursuits

Colm Tóibín‘s new novel, Brooklyn, is a deceptively simple story of one young woman packed off to Brooklyn in the 1950s. Eilis Lacey is a younger daughter with no firm prospects for either work or marriage in a small town in Ireland during the early 1950s. Her spinster sister and widowed mother arrange a new life in Brooklyn for her through a visiting Irish priest. When she arrives in the strange land, Eilis finds a job, a room at a boarding house, and church duties all waiting for her, but she feels bereft of the generations-old social network that surrounded her at home. Much to her surprise, she makes a place for herself in Brooklyn, and even strikes up a relationship with a well-intentioned Italian man.  However, despite the material success, she can’t fully commit to her new life in Brooklyn because her heart is still in Ireland.

When tragedy brings her back home, she discovers her time away has made her appear exotic and interesting to the men of her town, and her American experience makes her more attractive to employers. Of course, along with the good there’s a newfound appreciation for the bad, as she has a new understanding of small-town spitefulness. Finally she has to decide between assuming the role others would choose for her, and the life she could choose for herself.

The most striking thing about Tóibín’s Brooklyn, besides the beautiful prose and atmospheric evocation of both communities, is the terribly unfashionable lack of irony. Despite the hardships and unfamiliarity, the possibilities represented by emigration are painted in a positive light. Eilis may dwell on the differences and mourn her easy friendships and almost unconscious understanding of the least aspects of social life in Ireland, but despite herself she is thrilled by the differences: the amenities of a big city, the mix of nationalities and the opportunity for interesting work. She lives in a boarding house with a group of women representing the range of accommodations immigrants make to a new culture: stubborn denial through total capitulation. Despite the opportunity to attach herself to this ex-patriot community, Eilis seeks out new experiences and company. Tóibín cleverly underlines that even these seemingly daring choices are easy when in a completely new community. It’s when Eilis goes home, ostensibly just for a month’s holiday, that she must choose whether or not to make her decisions in the full light of her family and her community, or deny her life in Brooklyn like a summer fling, and take her place in the unchanging routine of small town life. The decision is a hard one, and one that most novels about emigration either never broach or telegraph on the first page through an ironic tone and level of condescension to the old. It’s a tribute to Colm Tóibín that his even-handed treatment of both communities allows the reader to feel the full weight of Eilis’ decision.


Author’s website (a little out of date)

Very frank interview with Colm Tóibín at The Manchester Review

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