First Chapter: New novel opens on a Chronicle headline
This week there’s a novel about a Navan nun, a memoir about late second chances written by Nora Ephron’s less famous sister, an examination of what makes the Irish so different from their nearest neighbours, and Sara Baume’s exquisite new novel.
Sister Agatha Domhnall O’Donoghue Agatha Publishing €12.99
One can’t ignore a novel which opens with a Meath Chronicle headline, even if the news is a little stale. The headline of February 6th 1898 announces the birth of a baby girl and a baby cow at exactly the same time, on a small farm outside Navan. The cow is no longer with us but the baby – now Sister Agatha – is still alive, the fifth oldest person in the world. She erroneously believes she hears her doctor, during a routine checkup, surmising that her jig is up. So she decides that if she’s on her way out, by God she’ll go as the world’s oldest citizen, not its fifth-oldest. ‘Nearly’ never won the race, right?
Her sacred mission involves bumping off the other four wrinklies, but then Sister Agatha’s never been one to shirk responsibility. She merely has to travel the world to…er…’execute’ her solemn duties. Suspend your disbelief, this novel is hilarious, from writer, journalist and Ros na Rún star Domhnall O’Donoghue, a native Navanese. The rights have already been bought by Emmy-award winning US film production company, Pink Spear. Impressive or what?
The Irish Difference: A Tumultuous History of Ireland’s Breakup With Britain Fergal Tobin Atlantic Books €18.99
Balancing the weight of hefty scholarship with the delivery of an appealing narrative for the general market is a divil of a job, and so many fail. I’ve waded through some tomes, particularly history books let loose in the bookshops that
could choke a reader, so dry were they. But the only dry element in The Irish Difference is the wit, generously peppered throughout and making this book a thoroughly engaging read. Do we need another Irish history book? Absolutely, when it’s exploring the particular streak of Irishness that’s the very stuffing of us and led to our eventual independence, although that’s been no cakewalk either.
“Ireland became the only country in Reformation Europe where, over a century, a monarchy with a consistent religious agenda failed to impose it on its subjects…this was not just dissent on an insular but on a continental scale.” We’ve always been bolshy like that, it seems, and Tobin’s excavation of our bolshiness sweeps from the Norman aftermath right up to Brexit, examining literature and sport as well as religion and politics.
Left on Tenth Delia Ephron Doubleday €21.00
Delia Ephron is the slightly less famous sister of Norah Ephron, but she did co-write the screenplay of Norah Ephron’s most successful film, You’ve Got Mail. She wrote plenty of other things too, screenplays and novels, although she’s not quite as well known here as in the US. The publishing of this memoir might change that. In 2012 she lost her husband of decades to cancer. A year later, still mourning and in her seventies, she was to discover love again, through an unlikely series of coincidences. Then she herself was struck with the same aggressive strain of leukaemia that killed her sister. After some harrowing treatment she’s now recovered, fiddle-fit, and approaching eighty!
There’s been a huge surge of memoirs published in recent years, and while some of them are beautifully written, the authors (most of them a lot younger than Ephron) sometimes have a tendency to take themselves very seriously indeed. Does one become more lighthearted with age? Who knows. But I can
say that while there is enormous suffering in this memoir, both emotional and physical, there’s also a huge amount of joy and some real comedy. Ephron is like an electrical charge and it’s infectious. Life-affirming is an over-used adverb, in my opinion, but it’s going to have to suffice here, as this is what Ephron does. She grabs life with both hands, even on the most horrendous, painful, frightening days, and simply carries on. Charming, witty and inspiring.
Seven Steeples Sara Baume Tramp Press €15.00
I’ve been an admirer of Sara Baume ever since her debut, Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither appeared. I have never read, before or since, anything that comes close to describing the love of one man for his dog with such pinpoint, minute accuracy. A Line Made by Walking followed, easily as impressive, and her third book, handiwork, described a rural lifestyle with her partner, both of them quietly industrious in their artistic endeavours (Baume is a visual artist as well as a multi-award winning writer).
Although Seven Steeples is a novel, one can’t help but wonder if some of the ideas within were at least sparked by her own lifestyle. Bell and Sigh meet, fall for each other quickly, and decide to move in together along with their two dogs, renting a tumbledown rural cottage on the edge of nowhere. Here – and this is where the fiction comes in – they decide to retreat from the world completely. Families, friends, acquaintances, social media, the works. They impose on themselves the fastidious quietude of almost monastic living, while making every effort to ‘leave no trace’. And the result is a story steeped in Baume’s rich language, where not a single tiny detail of their day-to-day lives seems to be overlooked. And this is the novel’s triumph; that keen sense of observation, elevating the everyday to the marvellous, along with her deftness
of pen. It’s surely another deserving award winner for Baume and our most audacious of publishers, Tramp Press.
Life Festival, the festival of Irish music, will take place in the grounds of Belvedere House, Mullingar this month from May 27th to 29th. Tickets for last year’s events will be validated for this year’s, although you must enquire online. See life-festival.com for full details.
The Bealtaine Festival runs for the month of May in various locations throughout the country, while also offering a huge choice of online events. Concentrating on arts and creativity as we age, this festival has gone from strength to strength, despite recent Covid-related setbacks. You can access the full programme and book tickets at bealtaine.ie.