Read in December 2013
In the Company of Others, by Jan Karon
Jan Karon has spun off the central character of her Mitford series, Rev. Tim Kavanagh, into a new series that in this installment finds her retired Episcopalian minister visiting a remote fishing lodge in western Ireland with his wife, Cynthia. Although I’d hoped for a another cozy read from author whose books have been huge hits, I finally put this novel down without finishing it. Many of the choices Karon made as an author prevented me from getting into this story. To begin with, she adopts a dialect for her Irish characters, dropping the first and last letters of many of their words. If the novelist’s job is to spin a fictional dream for the reader, the constant annoyance of missing letters in much of her dialogue continuously acts to break the dream and pull the reader back to the page to translate. In addition, the novel features a huge cast of characters or, more accurately, four huge casts of characters — the Mitford folks, the residents in and around the fishing lodge, the visitors to the fishing lodge, and the long-dead inhabitants of the area featured in a diary from the 1860s — and I had trouble keeping them straight. Karon maroons Rev. Tim at the fishing lodge due to Cynthia’s badly sprained ankle, which makes the story static, with most of the scenes set in a handful of places in and around the lodge, which gives the book a repetitive feel. On top of that, very little happens — not much showing — but there is endless telling, with the characters in contemporary Ireland telling the minister their backstories and their deepest secrets, the Mitford residents telling the minister what’s happening back home in emails and phone calls, and the diary telling the what happened in the locale 150 years earlier. What little action there is, including the attack which injured Cynthia, happens off the page, leaving Tim — and the reader — to be told, not shown. Because I’d enjoyed Karon’s earlier books, I gave her the benefit of the doubt and kept reading, but when I reached page 306, less than 100 pages from the end of the novel, I’d had enough.
Hungry For Home, by Cole Moreton
Not long after the turn of the 20th century, a spate of books appeared that were written by Irish-speaking inhabitants of the Great Blasket Island, including Tomás Ó Criomhthain, Peig Sayers and Muiris Ó Súilleabháin, and describe the subsistence lifeway of the westernmost point in Ireland. In the late 1940s the dwindling population of the island was relocated following the death of a young man from meningitis while the single telephone and transport to the island were cut off by bad weather. Cole Moreton picks up the story at that point, describing that incident and the dispersion of Blasket inhabitants, including many who emigrated to Springfield, Massachusetts, and his own efforts in the 1990s to visit the island. I was disappointed by his account, which is largely anecdotal and lacking in the kind of details of the relocation that I’d hope to find, such as the financial arrangements of resettling the last Blasket families. Although Moreton interviewed many former Blasket inhabitants, they don’t offer any special insights — those who remained on the Dingle Peninsula continue to live in modest circumstances and those who moved to the U.S. live typical middle-class American lives. Moreton’s recreation of their moves shows them to be unremarkable — most caught an ocean liner in Cork, a far cry from the hardships endured by 19th century Irish emigrants. Moreton’s description of his own attempts to visit the Great Blasket and his eventual success was also unremarkable. For those interested in the Blaskets, this is an unnecessary book.