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Damian Smyth selects the best new books to be locked up with (part 2)

Monday 13th April 2020 at 1pm 116 Comments Literature

Damian Smyth, Head of Literature and Drama at the Arts Council, selects the best new books to escape into when the real world gets too much. Image: Damian Smyth, Head of Literature and Drama at the Arts Council, selects the best new books to escape into when the real world gets too much.

In the second of two special blogs, Damian Smyth, Head of Literature and Drama at the Arts Council, selects the best new books to escape into when the real world gets too much.

The Tide (Little Tiger £6.99) is written by Clare Helen Walsh with artwork by Ashling Lindsay – before any other diagnosis of what it’s about, it’s a lovely economical story of understanding between generations, as metaphors are found for when familiar relationships get confused and blurry as age takes its place, and it’s also shortlisted for the KPMG CBI Book Awards. One of the Arts Council’s literature ACES, Lindsay’s art is mellow, subtle and full of discoveries to be made.

A writer developing real authority is Rosemary Jenkinson, playwright, memoirist and short fiction specialist, whose Catholic Boy (2018) was shortlisted for the EU Ireland Prize for Literature. Her fourth collection and second from Galway’s excellent bijou Doire Press is Lifestyle Choice 10MG (£11.00): twelve witty, observant and punchily-written stories of classic Jenkinsoniana – the lonely, the drugged, the frantic, the adventurous, the paranoid, the hunted, the hilarious, the desperate, moving through the vexed streets of Ulster, who end up oddly in a condition close to heroism.

You may remember Enoch Powell, but I bet you won’t remember the man he succeeded as MP for South Down in 1974. In The Shepherd and the Morning Star (Birlinn £9.99), Willie Orr – that man’s son – has written at once a gripping memoir of his father, Unionist Party grandee Lawrence Percy Story Orr, and an equally compelling autobiography relating his separation from and disavowal of the politics and personality of his womanising, near-bigamist father, and his own long journey from Belfast to Oban where he finally settled, after spells as a shipyard worker, an actor, a shepherd and a teacher. It’s a unique, rather eccentric tale, peppered with the author’s own good verses, some political and social observations of our day, and touching tributes to dogs that were good on the hill. In other words, very nearly perfect.

“Today is the day God and I call/A truce”, says poet Linda McKenna, “He nods across the chasm between us”, and so many elegantly-phrased, craftily-shaped poems in her début collection, In The Museum of Misremembered Things (Doire £11.00), reach across that gulf between the known and unknown, the half-recalled and guessed-at, the missed and lost, in both domestic and historical settings. Impressive.

Whit? That slapping sound you hear is Henry McDonald’s fierce, fast and frank Belfast Troubles love-story/thriller, Two Souls (Merrion, £14.99), being thrown against the wall by ABBA fans – these are the 70s and 80s you won’t find in Mamma Mia – before they sidle over to retrieve it, just to see what happens to punky Ruin McManus and the goddess Sabine, so authentic is this confrontational Belfast which can – it seems – never change, even as it tilts into the 90s, in a novel where the violence is relentless but operatic, the language florid but never less than riveting.

Talking of cyclistes, there was a bidding war last year for Helen Moat’s A Time of Birds: reflections on cycling across Europe (Sarabande £9.99). This wonderful narrative of her epic mid-life trek across Europe with her son to Istanbul is harrowing and inspiring by rapid turns. The celebrated travel author and TV contributor is from Lurgan and this pretty spectacular account of her childhood upbringing, 20 years after the Belfast Agreement, joins the small but potent library shelf of Brethren ‘survivor diaries’ on which sit such as Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son and our own Max Wright’s Told In Gath. Indispensable, heart-breaking, uplifting, beautifully-conceived and -written, Moat’s contribution is of that standard.

May Tyrants Fall: The Life of William Drennan 1754-1820 (Irish Academic Press £25.00), a biography of the tremendously influential Belfast thinker and democrat by his foremost scholar Fergus Whelan, presents a fresh examination of this complex, subtle, nerveless pioneer of modern Ireland, son of the radical educationalist Thomas, coiner of the phrase the ‘Emerald Isle’, founder of both the United Irishmen and Inst, great-grandfather to a Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, a Prime Minister of Northern Ireland and the designer of the Titanic, and who, carried to his grave by six Catholics and six Protestants, pointed the way towards the anti-sectarian island we still await.

Phew! After a few months under house arrest, you’ll be ready for a break, say a refreshing cruise. But don’t pick Sir John Franklin as your tour guide. On the strength of a chapter-and-a-half released online, Nicola Pierce’s Chasing Ghosts: An Arctic Adventure (O’Brien £7.99), is a novel, for younger readers, which you won’t want to miss at any age or stage. It follows the voyage of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror to the Arctic in 1846 – a journey so ill-fated that even the names of the ships don’t do it justice. Across its pages steps the famous hero of Banbridge, Sir Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier, whose statue adorns his native town. But the novel opens with an extraordinary account of the last dats of little Weesie - childish pronunciation of 'Louisa' - who is to haunt the pages, with an uncanny echo of the Arctic disaster.

Finally, the release by Faber of the late Lyra McKee’s selected writings. The murder of the journalist in Derry just a year ago resonated around the world and coincided terribly with the arrival in Belfast of her good friend Anna Burns on her first public visit after her novel Milkman had scooped the Man Booker Prize. Lost, Found, Remembered (£12.99) is a small volume of big writings – in particular, her advice on growing up gay in her ‘Letter to My Fourteen Year Old Self’ (“Kid, it’s going to be okay”), and the ground-breaking essay on ‘The Ceasefire Suicides’ (“suffering the legacy of a conflict most of them know little to nothing of”).

“Must we really leave her here?”, Weesie’s brother asks in Chasing Ghosts. “I mean, won’t she be terribly scared when it gets dark being here all alone?”

Little Weesie and her haunting may have the last say after all.

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