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“Why did you leave Ireland”?

“I was sick,” he said. “I was sick of Ireland, he laughed.”

“Seriously Michael.”

“Seriously, if you knew anything about the country you wouldn’t ask me why I left.”

There is a moment towards the end of this book when the protagonist Katherine Procter walks down Grafton Street in Dublin late at night, crosses the Ha’Penny Bridge over the River Liffey, continues on towards Blackhall Place and finally reaches her destination of Carnew Street. I smirked to myself when I read this and remarked to Stephanie that you could tell this book was not set in the present day.

Eight months ago I was mugged at knife-point in Dublin. Every day after that I was scared to go out on to the streets at night. I desperately wanted to leave the city. The date of our departure for Australia seemed an eternity away.  When I think of Dublin now, that is what I remember, an unending, oppressive sense of fear. In a very real sense, I saw my travelling to Australia as escape.

Katherine is also looking to escape. Born and raised in Wexford, she has left her husband and child and fled to Spain. When she thinks of Ireland she remembers the dead relationship between Tom the man she married and her herself; her estranged son, who takes after his father in every respect; and finally she remembers the local people in the area who hated her family for being Anglo-Irish Protestants, who burned down her house when she was only a child. Her own mother left Ireland afterwards, terrified of the Irish and refusing to return from London. Now Katherine has followed in her foot-steps.

Barcelona is a world away from Enniscorthy. Katherine discovers an enclave of bohemian artists and begins to receive training in becoming a painter herself. She meets Miguel, an enigmatic man who uses art to frame the political upheaval in Spain following the Civil War and falls in love with him. Her mother sends her enough money to support herself and together with her new lover, she begins to reinvent herself, leaving her past as a member of the Irish landowner class behind.

The arrival of Irishman and Enniscorthy native Michael Graves in Barcelona puts Katherine on edge. Not only is he an insistent reminder of the life she ran away from, as a Roman Catholic he symbolises to her the same mob that attacked her home causing the breakup of her family when she was a child during ‘The Troubles’ in the South of Ireland. Furthermore he attaches himself to Katherine and Miguel from the moment they first meet him. She wakes up the first morning after encountering the Irishman to find him asleep beside her lover.

It appears that not only is her past not finished with her, but Miguel’s own history has caught up with the couple. He refuses to hide his anti-Francoist fervour, risking imprisonment. His status as a former revolutionary and a Catalan makes him a target for police intimidation. Katherine cannot understand why he insists on reliving his hatred for the Spanish fascist regime, why he cannot simply plan a future for them together. She slowly comes to recognize that Miguel’s wartime activities are not so different from the actions of the landless Catholics who attacked her family thirty years ago.

This is a beautifully written first novel by Colm Tóibín. The parallels drawn between the Irish and Spanish Civil Wars are cannily illustrated, with Katherine’s blinkered inability to recognize the hatreds of her own upbringing causing her to view the historical wounds of Spain as exotic curiosities. Tóibín’s writing is reminiscent of John Banville’s European Irish fiction, with protagonists finding inescapable echoes of Ireland on the Continent.

I strongly identified with Katherine as my own relationship with my homeland has become twisted by fear, despite knowing how irrational that feeling is. Funnily enough I continue to meet Michael Graves all over Sydney, the Irish accent reappearing at the oddest times. This is the life of an emigrant, I suppose, finding reminders of home wherever I go. More importantly though I am no longer afraid of returning home. Australia, and in part writing for this blog,  allowed me the opportunity to heal.

This book is beautifully observed, thematically insightful and ferries its haunted protagonists to a welcome peace of sorts.

That night, back in my office. I say office – it’s actually my bedroom, but I think of it as an office. It sounds better if you say to a client, ‘I’ll need to run a few tests back in the office,’ rather than, ‘I’ll have a look at this with a magnifying glass after I put my PJs on.’

From Australian children’s authors let’s skip across the planet to Ireland. If that makes you feel slightly dizzy, try to imagine how I feel! Wexford-born native Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl series was a breath of fresh air when it first arrived. A modern, witty take on Irish mythology and contemporary society….with farting leprechauns, just to make sure kids paid attention. Half-Moon Investigations is a new series from Colfer and I am happy to report, is also a very successful humour book for children.

Fletcher Moon is the town joke in the small community of Lock. A twelve year old boy who likes to ‘play at detective’. He even insists on showing off a detective’s badge, which he insists is genuine. His kind parents indulge the fantasy, but hope he’ll grow up and notice girls some day. The other children are not so understanding and have branded Fletcher with the nickname ‘Half-Moon’. He’s a weirdo, a nerdy kid with delusions of grandeur.

What most people don’t know is that Fletcher is an accredited private investigator. Sure he used his dad’s birth date and credit card to apply for the two year course. Nevertheless he has a real detective’s badge and know’s the course books off by heart. He dreams of one day working for the FBI as a forensic investigator, like the kind on CSI. In the meantime he’s hoping to score a real case and maybe even a real fee. Mostly the school kids he has helped pay him in chocolate.

Fletcher soon learns to regret his ambitions when popular ten-year old April Devereux hires him to investigate a series of mysterious robberies. The prime suspect is one Red Sharkey, the heir apparent of Lock’s local criminal gang lord Papa Sharkey. He doesn’t appreciate the attention Fletcher is drawing to him and does not hesitate in letting his feelings on the matter be known. What’s more, the boy detective soon discovers the danger in becoming too involved in a case, after he finds himself first assaulted and then framed for a serious crime. Is April Devereux ten Euro retainer enough to cover his growing legal fees and bail?

This is winning, fast-paced stuff, a kiddy version of a Sam Spade mystery. There is even, in the classic detective format, two mysteries that overlap for Fletcher to resolve. In many ways this resembles an Irish take on Rian Johnson’s Brick, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, with all the tropes of detective fiction entertainingly inserted into this schoolyard adventure. There’s even a tween stool pigeon and a pink loving femme fatale.

On the weekend I happened to catch five minutes of a television series based on Colfer’s novels. Not only was the action relocated to England, but I felt the spirit of the novel was lost, with the usual generic and insipid child actors standing in for the preternaturally worldly-wise heroes and villains of this yarn. A real shame and a missed opportunity I feel for the Irish film and television industry not to have kicked Colfer’s door down for the rights (but then, that is not an unusual error on their part).

I would strongly recommend these books for children between the ages of 10 – 15 and adults who enjoy a wry chuckle. I am looking forward to gobbling down the rest of these books like I did the Artemis Fowl series.

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