Books editor Orna Mulcahy shares eight brilliant reads for February …
Sebastian Barry has called it “Terrible, dreepy, dark February” – in other words, an ideal month for staying in with some good books. And it’s a bumper month for fiction with bestselling Marian Keyes bringing back her most popular ever character, Rachel, after 25 years, in AGAIN, RACHEL (Penguin, €14.99); Monica Ali of Brick Lane fame publishing her first book in a decade, LOVE MARRIAGE, (Hachette, €13.99) and Tessa Hadley also back in business with FREE LOVE (Jonathan Cape, €20) another quiet domestic drama with devastating undercurrents.
I was hooked from page one of THE COLONY (Faber, €14.99) by Wicklow writer Audrey Magee. It’s the summer of 1979, a particularly violent one for sectarian killings in the North, a time of upheaval on a remote island off the west coast where an English painter, Mr Lloyd, has exiled himself to paint, determined to do his best work in isolation and win back the respect of his art dealer wife. Meals and shelter are provided by an island family still in mourning for their menfolk lost at sea. Young widow Mairead and her mother keep house, son James longs to escape, while a grandmother’s Gaelic is being studied by fellow guest, JP, a Frenchman preparing his thesis on the linguistic purity of the island. Magee, whose debut novel was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, has written a beautiful page-turner in which not a lot happens save for the making of tea, the killing of rabbits and the sparkle of waves crashing to shore but as jealousy and longings build on the island, news intrudes about the victims in the North. The connection becomes clear when young James, who shows talent as an artist, is encouraged by Lloyd to return to London with him to attend art school, but even as Lloyd works on a vast symbolic painting of island life, his young protegé threatens to outshine him. Storm clouds gather and someone will have to pay by summer’s end.
Niamh Campbell, who won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature with her first novel, This Happy, has a new novel, WE WERE YOUNG, (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, €19.60) in which charming photographer Cormac returns to Dublin after a stint away that ended badly with his ex, Alva. Nearing 40, he reclaims the city, complete with keys to a friend’s city centre apartment, but even as he picks up with an old friend Alice who puts work his way, and reconnects with a former love, Nina, he keeps searching, briefly thinking that young dancer, Caroline, might be the answer. Accustomed to being central to others’ worlds, Cormac finds himself gradually heading for the margins, nostalgic for pre-Celtic Tiger days and, possibly, the oldest swinger in town, in this sophisticated, sad tale of a Dublin life.
I loved the strange stories in HOW TO GUT A FISH (Bloomsbury, £12.99) a superb if disturbing debut collection from west of Ireland writer Sheila Armstrong in which life seems normal until things get very strange in a way that will keep you awake at night.
What connects the abominable goings-on at a mother and baby home in rural county Cork and marital difficulties between the writer Agatha Christie and her husband Archie? In THE CHRISTIE AFFAIR (Mantle, €13.99) American writer Nina de Gramont concocts a twisty tale in the Christie tradition, taking the real-life disappearance of the author for a period of eleven days in 1926 and weaving in threads of loss and revenge to create a satisfactory reveal.
Catherine Kirwan’s cleverly plotted CRUEL DEEDS (Hachette, €14.99) is a second outing for Cork solicitor-cum-investigator Finn Fitzpatrick whose colleague Mandy is found beaten to death in a derelict house. What could have befallen the brilliant lawyer who appeared to have it all – brains, money and a gorgeous family? Finn uncovers hidden files, mysterious bank accounts and dodgy clients but also the thing she most dreads – a connection to her own boyfriend who, all of a sudden, is acting strangely. Highly recommended.
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