This week there’s a novel about a nun from Navan, a memoir about belated second chances by Nora Ephron’s less famous sister, an examination of what makes the Irish so different from their closest neighbors and the new exquisite novel by Sara Baume.
Sister Agatha Domhnall O’Donoghue Agatha Publishing £12.99
You can’t ignore a novel that opens with a Meath Chronicle title, even if the news is a little outdated. The February 6, 1898 headline announces the birth of a baby girl and a baby cow at exactly the same time, on a small farm outside Navan. The cow is no longer with us but the baby – now Sister Agatha – is still alive, the fifth oldest person in the world. She mistakenly believes that she hears her doctor, during a routine examination, assuming that her template is in place. So she decides that if she’s about to leave, by God, she’ll leave as the world’s oldest citizen, not the fifth oldest. “Almost” never won the race, did it?
Her sacred mission is to remove the other four wrinkles, but Sister Agatha has never been one to shy away from her responsibilities. She has only to travel the world to… er… “perform” her solemn duties. Suspend your disbelief, this novel is hilarious, from writer, journalist and Ros na Rún star Domhnall O’Donoghue, a native Navanese. The rights have already been purchased by Emmy Award-winning American film production company Pink Spear. Impressive or what?
The Irish Difference: A Turbulent History of Ireland’s Break with Britain Fergal Tobin Atlantic Books £18.99
Balancing the weight of heavy scholarship with delivering an appealing narrative for the general market is a diabolical job, and many fail. I looked through a few volumes, notably history books dropped in bookstores that
could suffocate a reader, they were so dry. But the only dry element of The Irish Difference is the wit, generously peppered throughout and making this book a very engaging read. Do we need another Irish history book? Absolutely, when it comes to exploring the particular streak of Irish that is the very substance of us and led to our eventual independence, though that hasn’t been a cakewalk either.
“Ireland became the only country in Reformation Europe where, for more than a century, a monarchy with a coherent religious program failed to impose it on its subjects…it did not was not just island-wide dissent but continental-wide.” We’ve always been bold like that, it seems, and Tobin’s exploration of our boldness ranges from the Norman aftermath to Brexit, examining literature and sport as well as religion and politics.
On the left the tenth Delia Ephron Doubleday 21,00 €
Delia Ephron is the slightly less famous sister of Norah Ephron, but she co-wrote the screenplay for Norah Ephron’s most successful film, You’ve Got Mail. She’s written a lot of other stuff too, screenplays and novels, although she’s not as well known here as she is in the States. The publication of this memoir could change that. In 2012, she lost her husband of decades to cancer. A year later, still in mourning and in her seventies, she will rediscover love, through an improbable series of coincidences. Then she herself was struck down with the same aggressive strain of leukemia that killed her sister. After a grueling treatment, she is now recovered, in great shape and approaching eighty!
There’s been a huge flurry of memoirs published in recent years, and while some of them are beautifully written, the authors (most of them much younger than Ephron) sometimes tend to take themselves very seriously. serious. Do we get lighter with age? Who knows. But I can
to say that while there is enormous pain in these memoirs, both emotional and physical, there is also an enormous amount of joy and real comedy. Ephron is like an electric charge and it’s contagious. Life-affirming is an overused adverb, in my opinion, but it will have to suffice here, because that’s what Ephron does. She grabs life with both hands, even the most awful, painful and scary days, and just keeps going. Charming, witty and inspiring.
Seven Bell Towers Sara Balm Tramp Press 15,00 €
I’ve been a fan of Sara Baume since her debut, Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither. I have never read, before or since, anything that comes close to describing a man’s love for his dog with such precise and painstaking precision. A Line Made by Walking followed, easily as impressive, and his third book, Handiwork, described a rural way of life with his partner, both quietly industrious in their artistic endeavors (Baume is a visual artist as well as an award-winning writer Many times. ).
Although Seven Steeples is a novel, one can’t help but wonder if some of the ideas in it were at least prompted by his own lifestyle. Bell and Sigh meet, quickly fall in love, and decide to move in together with their two dogs, renting a crumbling cabin on the edge of nowhere. Here – and this is where the fiction comes in – they decide to withdraw completely from the world. Families, friends, acquaintances, social networks, works. They impose on themselves the tedious tranquility of an almost monastic life, while striving “to leave no trace”. And the result is a story steeped in the rich language of Baume, where no detail of their daily life seems to be forgotten. And this is the triumph of the novel; this acute sense of observation, elevating the everyday to the marvelous, as well as his dexterity
of pen. This is surely another deserving winner for Baume and our boldest publisher, Tramp Press.
Life Festival, the Irish music festival, will take place in the grounds of Belvedere House, Mullingar this month from 27-29 May. Tickets for last year’s events will be valid for this year’s events, although you must inquire online. See life-festival.com for details.
The Bealtaine Festival takes place during the month of May in various locations across the country, while offering a huge selection of online events. Focusing on the arts and creativity as we age, this festival has gone from strength to strength, despite recent Covid-related setbacks. You can access the full program and book tickets at bealtaine.ie.