Everything In This Country Must by Colum McCann

This is my third installment for Ireland Reading Challenge at Books and Movies. And just recently, I’ve come across another interesting reading event, so I’m using this review as well to participate in the Irish Short Story Week Year Two at The Reading Life.

A book compiling two short stories and a novella, Everything in this Country Must reaffirms my admiration for Colum McCann’s spare and powerful writing.

McCann is the author of the 2009 National Book Award winner Let The Great World Spin. In my review of that book, I noted how he’d intricately woven together seemingly unrelated stories against the backdrop of the Twin Towers, crafting a moving tribute to NYC.

Before NYC, McCann had written about his home country Ireland. Everything In This Country Must (2000) is a poignant portrayal of how the political turmoils in Northern Ireland during the 80’s affect the three young protagonists in each of these stories. All the short pieces in the book are masterfully rendered, immediate, sharply focused, intense, minimal yet deeply charged. Above all, I’ve appreciated, as with Great World, McCann’s insightful metaphors.


Everything In This Country Must: Short Story

Nightfall, cold and raining. A man’s favorite work horse is near drowning with its forelegs caught in some rocks at the bottom of a flooding river. He gets his 15 year-old daughter to help him hold the horse’s head above water with a rope while he frantically dives into the water to get its legs out, but to no avail. He desperately needs help.

Soon enough, an army truck passes by. A few British soldiers quickly jump out to help. O what plight! The wrong people coming to the man’s aid. These soldiers remind him of the loss of his beloved. Despite his protest, they save the horse. The daughter now is torn between her gratitude towards the soldiers and her father’s anger.

Of course I will not tell you everything about this story. You must experience it yourself. Then you’ll be amazed how in just fourteen pages, McCann can depict a human flood of hatred and rage that can drown any living soul, and slap you with a haunting end that leaves you cold like night.

Wood: Short Story

With his father stricken ill in bed, a young boy helps his mother to secretly work in the family mill to earn some money, cutting logs and refining them to make poles which will then be used to hold political banners for the Protestant marches. The boy knows that his father, despite being Protestant, disapproves of these marches. That’s why he knows he has to do this stealthily, yes, to protect the pride of his father who now lays in bed unable to work, but maybe even more importantly, so not to betray his political stance. Mother and son toil in secret, turning raw wood into polished poles. The boy loves both parents, his loyalty a dilemma between reality and ideal.

And all this time the wind blows obliviously, swaying the oak trees behind the mill. “The trunks were big and solid and fat, but the branches were slapping around like people.”

Hunger Strike: Novella

Kevin is a new arrival to a Southern seaside town, living with his mother in a caravan by the shore. The move apparently is an attempt of his mother to get away from the political conflicts in the North. Kevin’s father had been killed in an accident some years ago. Currently his uncle, an IRA member imprisoned in Northern Ireland, is one of a group of inmates holding a hunger strike. Some have already died.

The uncle’s ordeal disturbs 13 year-old Kevin deeply. While his mother wants to give him a better life away from the turmoil, Kevin is emotionally entwined with his uncle’s struggle. The boy vicariously partakes in the hunger strike, counting the days, noting closely the deterioration of his uncle’s health, and even secretly dumps his own food away.

An older couple with a yellow kayak live close by. Kevin observes that they paddle in sync, they move and rest in perfect harmony. Their calm and quiet life is a huge contrast to his. Later, the couple befriend him. The old man teaches him how to paddle:

The blade should never go too deep into the water or else too much energy would be used. And there should never be too much of a splash when the paddle came out — it should look as if the sea had hardly been disturbed.

A hopeful new beginning for Kevin seems to ensue, but the situation continues to deteriorate in his hometown in the North, and with the plight of his uncle. The waves inside Kevin is just too rough for smooth and quiet paddling. A sea undisturbed belongs to the apathetic, and sometimes splashes are called for. McCann’s description of a tormented young life is both visual and haunting, and propels us to a poignant and heart-wrenching end.

~~~~ Ripples
(yes, exactly my point)

Everything in This Country Must by Colum McCann, A Novella And Two Stories, Picador U.S.A., 2000, 150 pages.


For my other Ireland Reading Challenge posts: 

Molly Fox’s Birthday by Deirdre Madden

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde


Molly Fox’s Birthday by Deirdre Madden

This is my first selection for the 2012 Ireland Challenge at Books and Movies. Thanks to Litlove and Rebecca for the recommendation.

Molly Fox’s Birthday was on the long list of the 2009 Orange Prize. Despite the title and the look of the book cover, it’s not chic lit. It’s not about celebrating a birthday either.

The book is set on a single day, Molly Fox’s birthday, June 21st, the summer solstice. Molly Fox is a popular and gifted theatre actor. On that day, the narrator of the book is staying at Molly’s home in Dublin while Molly has gone on a trip to New York. Nothing much happens really on Molly’s birthday, a day that she doesn’t even celebrate.

The narrator is a playwright who has enjoyed acclaims at one time but is now going through a low period in her career. On this day, she is struggling with writer’s block. While she is staying in Molly’s home trying to start a new play, she is preoccupied with memories and pondering. She reminisces on her longtime friendship with Molly, who was initially propelled to fame when she performed  in the narrator’s debut play.

Gaiety Theatre, Dublin

Through her quiet recollections, the narrator describes how their lives intertwine with two other significant characters, Molly’s brother Fergus and their mutual friend Andrew, who is from Northern Ireland. The political events that happend during the past decades had shattered his family. A successful art historian living in London now,  Andrew is still haunted by disturbing memories. And Fergus is another personality which the narrator finds intriguing to discover slowly.

Sometimes it’s just a gut feeling that you like a book. As you’re reading, there’s a gentle push that prompts you forward, reinforcing your favor as you slowly go along… even though ‘nothing much happens’. To go beyond feeling is what I need to do now. Let me try to organise my thoughts:

First it’s the voice. Often that’s the first thing that draws me into the story. Throughout the book, the narrator is unnamed. Her voice is casual, understated, and her tone is occasionally self-deprecating: “… I was in the supporting role: ever the stooge…” For some reason, I’m instantly drawn to such remarks.

But the self-deprecation only hides a genuine search for self-worth, and a deep longing for what is true in relationships and in life. I admire her sincere quest for that which is authentic in herself and others. Like a close friend relating to you her deepest thoughts, you want to listen attentively.

Author Madden’s strategy of keeping the narrator anonymous is most apt, for we are led to discover her inner world, and appreciate the substance that makes up who she is. A name only identifies the surface, the content within is what makes it worthwhile for readers to know in a character.

Intriguingly, this is exactly what the narrator tries to do. As she struggles with writer’s block, she is also sorting out the blockages of veiled personas of those whom she thinks she has come to know, to find out what they are beneath the surface.

What appeals to me is the narrator’s insightful point of view disguised as casual remarks. Like how she recalls the first time she recognized Molly in a café, sitting nearby her and reading a book:

I did not approach Molly — what could I possibly have said? I really liked you in ‘The Importance of Being Ernest’. And what could she have replied? Why thank you very much. What would that have amounted to? Less than nothing. There are forms of communication that drive people apart, that do nothing other than confirm distance. But there are also instances when no connection seems to be made and yet something profound takes place, and this was just such a moment.

Café in Dublin

On Molly’s birthday, the narrator talks to three people who come by Molly’s home, Andrew, whom the narrative has not seen for a while, Molly’s brother Fergus and a well-wisher. From interactions with them, the narrator is surprised to learn that people’s outward image may well be a front hiding a very different self or intent.

From reading the quiet ruminations, I’m delighted to discover gems along the way. Like the rest of the narratives, it seems that the author has strewn them about casually. We’re free to notice and pick up. Here are a few of them:

From the narrator’s oldest brother Tom, a Catholic priest —

Eternity is a priest’s business. But we all live in time. And what I’m doing is trying to make people aware of how the two coexist… keeping that sense of eternity while being in time; and trying to live accordingly…

How the narrator describes Molly’s acting —

There was always something unmediated and supremely natural about her acting, it was the thing itself. Becoming, not pretending.

About the self on and off stage —

Is the self really such a fluid thing, something we invent as we go along, almost as a social reflex?… so much social interchange is inherently false, and real communication can only be achieved in ways that seem strange and artificial.

And this —

Sometimes, on stage, not showing something can be more powerful than showing it.

Seems like this might well be the style Madden follows in writing her book. Subtle prompting, slow revealing… and we’re led to surprising discovery alongside the narrator.

Molly Fox’s Birthday reminds me of Somerset Maugham’s novel Theatre. But this is quieter. And after I’ve finished I wonder… what have I missed now… for there are so many layers, I haven’t explored them all. First off, what’s the significance of a birthday on the summer solstice…

~ ~ ~  Ripples


Post of similar subject:

THEATRE by W. Somerset Maugham: In Search of Reality