While January felt like the longest month since the creation of our solar system, February whizzed on by, and here we are suddenly in March: the promise of spring and longer days, and St. Patrick’s Day is just around the corner. Hailing from Chicago, a city that’s very proud of its Irish heritage, I thought it only fitting to do a roundup of some good books by Irish women. All of them are unique and well-written, and certainly worth the emotional pain of getting close to characters who often experience some suffering, but in the end, maintain their optimism. Isn’t that the Irish way, after all?
Winner of the 2018 Man Booker prize, “Milkman” is an odd clash of specificity and generality. Though it is never explicitly stated, the book takes place in Belfast during the Northern Ireland conflict of the late 1970s (which, by the way, is an eerie projection of similar political troubles we have today). Middle sister is trying to keep things intentionally vague with you, because to be specific is to be known. She observes everything and provides wry commentary about her family and community that is at times unsettling and comedic. What’s most unsettling of all is the eponymous Milkman himself, a man twice her age who has taken an interest in her that many young women are painfully familiar with. And because nobody has considered that his attention is unwanted, people have begun to think that Middle Sister and this married Milkman (who isn’t really a milkman) are having a relationship. We know from the first sentence of the book that the Milkman dies. The question is how, and why. This book takes a lot of attention and concentration to read, so if you’re looking for some easy bedtime reading, this isn’t the one for you.
Edna O’Brien is a celebrated Irish author, known for her frank descriptions of sexual violence, criticisms of the Catholic church, and other subjects that have ruffled feathers over in Ireland. In 2015, 55 years after she wrote her debut novel, “The Country Girls,” she published “The Little Red Chairs,” also to high acclaim. A stranger turns up in a rural Irish village, passing himself off as a natural healer. His arrival causes a stir, and though he is not a good man, many fall under his spell. One woman in particular will suffer greatly for her naïveté.
One of Ireland’s bestselling female authors, Marian Keyes has what you’d consider the stereotypical Irish sense of humor: she can somehow turn terrible circumstances and disastrous ironies into a funny, entertaining read. Her most recent novel, “The Break,” is about a husband (Hugh) who decides he needs a six-month break from his life — his job, his kids, and his wife of 18 years (Amy). Devastated, Amy must stay focused on her job and her kids, while her colorful cast of relatives offers advice, both solid and outrageous. Overall, this is the kind of plane or beach read that makes you laugh, cry, and appreciate those who are born into a massive Irish family.
It took McBride nine years to find a publisher for this book, and reading it, one can see why. For one thing, it’s utterly depressing: the unnamed, half-formed girl in question has an absentee father, an abusive mother, and a brother whose brain tumor lingers over his life like the guillotine waiting for the rope to be slashed. And I haven’t even mentioned the sexual violence yet.
For another thing, the writing is utterly unlike anything that’s been published before. It’s more than stream of consciousness; it’s visceral narration, an endless gut-punch of sensory stimulation and broken emotion. Once it did get published, it immediately garnered acclaim, and won the Women’s Prize for Fiction, a highly prestigious British literary award. It’s a difficult writing style to maintain for a full-length novel, and McBride doesn’t always succeed at it. But she very effectively holds your attention, even through the horrific details of this girl’s life, via this unique take on the first-person narrative. It’s well worth a read despite the tough subject matter.
At only 28 years old, Sally Rooney is already an accomplished novelist. “Normal People” is her second book, coming out in the U.S. this spring. Already out in the U.K., the book was longlisted for the Man Booker prize and took home Novel Irish Book Awards last year. Rooney is, naturally, particularly adept at capturing young millennials: how they speak, how they act, and all of their woes about sexting and dating apps and trying to get jobs. “Normal People” follows Connell and Marianne, two kids from the same town but from very different backgrounds. Their relationship ebbs and flows from high school into college, and over the years they are in turn kind and unkind to each other. Overall this is a highly realistic look at young love, well written and well-paced; sad at certain times, while other passages will have you feeling nostalgic for your first relationship.
Nuala Ní Chonchúir
Nuala Ní Chonchúir, who publishes under the name Nuala O’Connor in the U.S., is known for both poetry and historical fiction. Her debut novel, “Miss Emily,” imagined an unlikely and heartwarming friendship between Emily Dickinson and her young Irish maid. In “Becoming Belle,” Ní Chonchúir imagines the life of Belle Bilton, a real woman who lived in the late 19th century. Raised in a middle-class family, she moves to London and becomes a dancing sensation with her sister. Through her performances she meets and marries the Viscount Dunlo, thus becoming the Countess of Clancarty. It sounds like a fairy tale, but it’s not; she is scrutinized and lambasted in the press in a way that mirrors the tabloid fodder still popular today. This one was a nice, leisurely read, almost a highbrow romance novel.
A family saga, culminating in a holiday get-together, can easily veer into trite and overworn (and the more tired the plot, it seems, the more likely it’ll be turned into a feel-good movie). In Anne Enright’s capable hands, the Madigan family of “The Green Road” are a multidimensional, compelling bunch. Rosaleen is the impossible matriarch, the woman whose four children alternate between trying to get out from under her grasp and trying desperately to win her approval. Hanna, Dan, Constance, and Emmett grow up and go their separate ways, become adults with secrets and regrets, and then — 25 years after the book introduces them — Rosaleen calls them all back home for Christmas to announce that she’s selling their childhood home and divvying the proceeds between them. The complexities of family are hard to put into words, and Enright does a magnificent job capturing what it feels like to have a lifelong history with people who you love and yet you cannot bear to be around.
Another young Irish author, Louise O’Neill made a name for herself with “Asking for It,” a YA novel about teenage rape culture. “Almost Love” is definitely more adult-themed: Sarah, the rather unlikeable protagonist, is a self-loathing and destructive woman who has gotten deep into a toxic relationship with an older man. This book is hard to read at times, but it adeptly captures what it’s like to be stuck in a relationship that is no good for you. Sarah will be a trigger to some readers, and highly frustrating to other readers, but the understanding one gains for how someone could stay when they really should leave is important.
Here’s another book to add to your reading list: “Climate Justice: Hope, Resilience, and the Fight for a Sustainable Future” by Mary Robinson. Robinson was the first female president of Ireland and founded the Mary Robinson Foundation — Climate Justice. She will speak at The Woman’s Board of Rush University Medical Center 25th Annual Spring Luncheon on May 7.
Danielle McLimore is a Chicago-based writer and editor who has worked in book publishing since 2009. She lives with her husband, two sons, and a very misbehaved dog. She proudly supports the Center for Reproductive Rights.