The Books that Find Us

 My German friend rang me the other day telling me she had found a book for me. It was on the free book shelf outside the Spanish shop.  

I’m drowning in books. Don’t get me wrong, I love them, but I’d like to clear the decks before I add any more. Still, it was lovely of her to think of me.  

She did her best to pronounce the author’s name, ‘Nuala O’Faolain. She’s Irish.’  
Several years ago, I had read Are You Somebody, an autobiography by the same author. My brother had met her a couple of times and had given me her autobiography, which of course I read. I must admit I don’t remember much about it except that it was a tad on the sad side. 

The book my friend found for me is called My Dream of You, the German version. Curious, I began a search to see what it was about. 

book cover

On a whim, I also bought a used English version and suggested we take turns reading in each other’s language. That way, we could both improve our language skills. 

My Dream of You is about an Irish journalist who has been living in London for almost three decades. She shares an office with a gay American man called Jim and they often discuss their latest ports of call. Both of them are travel journalists and have developed a strong friendship after having worked together for twenty years.

The book begins with the protagonist on a journalistic assignment in Morocco. She meets a man at the airport who invites her to share his taxi back to town. You guessed it, she ends up in his hotel room, and they open a bottle of whiskey and spend the night together. It was not a passionate night, but she said they were both delighted with themselves after their little rendezvous. This made me laugh. All the more reason why she is disappointed and surprised when he rings her the next day, after having invited her out to dinner, to inform her he has to leave suddenly. 

Jim, her lovely American colleague dies suddenly of a heart attack. One moment he was there, the next moment he is gone. Just like that. I felt a pang of pain as I read that part. How much do we take for granted? All the friendships we expect to last forever. 

The loss of her friend catapulted her into an abyss of despair, the quiet type. She locked herself away in her basement flat near Euston square for a few days, occupying herself with reading. 

One of the paperbacks she reads sparks an intent to further explore an infamous court case that took place just after the Great Potato Famine, in the mid-eighteen hundreds. The Talbot affair is about an illicit affair between Mrs. Talbot, the lady of the manor, and her coachman. I won’t spoil any more. Suffice it to say that she decides to return to Ireland to do some further research. But that is not all. On her trip, she faces some of the demons she has left behind in her country of birth as she comes to the conclusion, while looking at some monkeys in a zoo, that she has never truly examined her family as closely as she has those monkeys as they go about their business, oblivious or numb to the curious stares of the people behind the cages. She is fifty, feeling frumpy and used, and her world is falling apart. It’s time for a change.

I knew immediately I would enjoy this book, not necessarily because of the subject matter, although I do see parallels to my own novel which I’m close to publishing. No, it’s her writing style, and then the fact that my friend said she felt magnetically drawn to that one book on the shelf of books and knew it had to be that one. I know that feeling. I’ve had it many times. It’s as if you are remote controlled. Serendipitous events like that usually hold some deeper significance. 

I began reading the first couple of pages. My friend followed with her English version. Sometimes we compared notes or compared the translation. She was quick to pick me up on my mispronunciation or when I got sloppy with my endings. German grammar is not easy! It might have helped if I had cleaned my reading glasses. As is often so with good friends, we enjoy an easy banter and like to tease each other. ‘Your glasses are dirty again,’ she’d say, tutting in mock despair. ‘Here, give them to me.’ She returned with clean glasses a few minutes later. 

I can see clearly now…

Then it was her turn to read. She sighed after a couple of particularly difficult words. ‘I’m no good,’ she’d said. ‘Nonsense, continue,’ I’d egg her on. We soon became so involved in the story that we forgot to correct each other…well, only occasionally. 

Nuala, the author, does tend to introspection and my friend burst out at one stage, ‘Get on with it.’ She wanted more action and was getting frustrated with the endless flashbacks. 
She was a wonderful writer. Her novel is informative and interesting. I’m reminded of the fact that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I’ve heard it said many times that Irish people tend to romanticise Ireland. It’s true. 

So I’m wondering if there is a deeper message in this synchronistic choosing of that particular novel. If so, what does it mean? I’ve had enough dreams and intuitive flashes in the past to know that they do indeed help point us in the right direction, but I’m at a loss as to the significance of my friend’s book choice and her determination to get it for me.  

When I compare my novel, I realise I have romanticised everything, although I have included a healthy dose of realism in my fictional story too. Really, there is no comparison, apart from the vague similarity in story line. Nuala sees everything with critical eyes. I cannot help but think her life was tinged with melancholy. I love the way she gives the reader layer upon layer of rich narrative. She is excellent at describing every little thing, not only mood and atmosphere but also the valley, the hedgerow, the awkward love scene between two out-of-practice single middle-aged people. You’re cringing and laughing at the same time. It is not an easy read. We’ve just covered a section describing the absolute misery of the Irish Famine victims and those left behind. There’s no romance in that!

Now that we’re half-way through the book, I have no idea whether I’ll continue to enjoy it and whether it will have a sad or a satisfying ending.  I do know that Nuala is a most accomplished writer and I’m so glad my friend found her novel on that free bookshelf.

My Review of The Herbalist by Niamh Boyce

I thoroughly enjoyed The Herbalist. It had been sitting on my Kindle for several months. I had read a few pages but wasn’t in the right mood or couldn’t get into it at first.
Then one day I began reading it again and soon became totally immersed in the setting and the story.

I can clearly imagine how an exotic character like the Herbalist would have repelled and attracted the locals in a small town in Ireland, or anywhere for that matter, a mere few decades ago. That’s the part that seemed incongruous to me i.e. the fact that a man like him would have chosen to live in a midlands town in Ireland back in the 1930’s.

When a book really interests me I want to find out as much as I can about the spark that ignited the idea for the story. I discovered that the author had found a small newspaper cutting while working on the archives of a local library (if my memory serves me correctly). The cutting reported on the trial of a man with an exotic sounding name who was accused of duping the locals with his treatments and herbal potions, or something to that effect.
Fiction is fiction and if you want to immerse yourself into a story and enjoy it without every detail having to be perfectly authentic, this might be the book for you. I know Irish life, I grew up there and I was able to roll with the story. Human nature being what it is, people gossip and people tend to go with the crowd. You’re either loved by many, tolerated or shunned. Boredom and lack of stimulation can make people behave strangely. Even in the sixties, Ireland was a country run by clerics; women were repressed and had little freedom, and this is all brought home in this dark but entertaining story.

My favourite character was Aggie, although I don’t seriously think a character like her would have been tolerated in any small town in Ireland, and she certainly wouldn’t have been having parties on her houseboat. Forgive me if I’m wrong on that score. Never mind, we can suspend belief and just enjoy the ride.

Yes, the author did use her unique style, switching characters and point of view and zooming in and out of scenes. But I genuinely loved her language, her creativity and her humour at times. I’ve marked a few examples here:
It reminded her of when the thread ended on the spool and the needle ran on regardless, puncturing seed holes of light.
I was growing myself some women’s intuition.
There was a lot wrong with her face: a wide mouth, a chin an inch too long, flared nostrils. And yet … she was perfectly lovely.
Grettie would have had Mass said for a splinter in her finger.
I struggled into the fur – it was soft as sin.
Ned had a dusty old job sweeping the roads but was always neat as a pin.
Rose was lying on the ground for anyone to see, all lonely under the moon.
Was I to live like a shunned sow, like the Carver sisters in their flour-bag dresses…
…it was a low-class thing. Low-class things are so exciting. Low class, my arse…
Okay, that’s enough. You get the picture. I’m very glad I returned to this book. It was a marvellous read. Dark yes, but amusing too. I look forward to reading more from this author.