The untimely end of both my 9 to 5 job, and my year abroad, in Buenos Aires as a result of Covid-19, not only brought with it stress, flights home, isolation, but also, crucially, time. Time that an hour-long commute, eight-hour working day, and university work don’t allow for. Time that I have spent, for the most part, reading. Whilst still in Argentina, awaiting my return to the UK, I started to make my way through several books, three of which would be primarily set in Dublin, a fact which, in the words of Robert Frost ‘has made all the difference’.
These books, John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies, Marian Keyes’ Grown Ups, and Sally Rooney’s Normal People, or perhaps the combination of the three in that order, had a strange, almost unprecedented effect on me, despite featuring very dissimilar characters, and differing in tone and style.
In reading them, I was drawn to Ireland, to Dublin. Not in the same, surface and fleeting way one feels a desire to go New York after watching Meg Ryan meet Tom Hanks at the top of the Empire State Building in Sleepless in Seattle, or to Florence after looking at a particularly beautiful, overexposed picture of the Duomo on Instagram. But in a visceral, corporeal manner: a need to go there after experiencing so much of it through the writing of others, the writing of Boyne, Keyes and Rooney.
The Heart’s Invisible Furies is the most sombre of the three, in its depiction of the sobering and uncomfortable topics of deeply entrenched homophobia and misogynistic hatred of ‘fallen women’ (unmarried mothers). This is particularly reminiscent of Boyne’s History of Loneliness, in which he tackles the Catholic Church’s corruption and sexual abuse of children, substantiating the view that the presentation of prejudice against pockets of society in 20th Century Ireland has become characteristic of much of Boyne’s work. These themes are explored, in spite of their unsettling seriousness, through the light and sometimes even amusing perspective of the protagonist, Cyril Avery, thus juxtaposing the darker aspects of Irish history and collective memory with the charm of the Irish people, and of Ireland itself.
This attractive charm pervades Grown Ups, as Keyes writes about the lives of the extended Casey family and their particular idiosyncrasies in a relaxing and inviting manner, even whilst tackling topics such as death, period poverty, and disordered eating. The focus on the dynamics within the family unit throughout the narrative is set against a subtle yet very present backdrop of 21st Century Dublin and varying aspects of its culture: its theatre through Nell’s set designing, its social issues through Ferdia’s campaigning, and its culinary scene through Jessie’s food business. It is this intriguing portrayal of a lived-in Dublin (rather than its tourist traps), combined with the relatable nature of this imperfect, ostensibly happy family, that render this novel, and its setting, so appealing.
However, it was reading Normal People that cemented the necessity of going to Dublin, having been there so frequently and so clearly in my imagination. I should preface this by saying that I wanted to not like it (mostly as a counter-reaction to the cult-like obsession surrounding it), but I did like it, loved it, even.
In this novel, Rooney creates a compelling love story whilst demonstrating a total comprehension of the complexities of human emotions: a simple ‘sorry about last night’ is explained to be an attempt to convey ‘apology, painful embarrassment, some additional feigned embarrassment that serves to ironise and dilute the painful kind [and]…a desire not to ‘make a big deal’. Having finished the book, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, about Connell and Marianne’s futures, about the novelty (at least to me) of Rooney’s writing style, and about Dublin, the city that played host to so much of their development at university.
It wasn’t until finishing Normal People that I considered that the connection between these three books, and a significant reason I had enjoyed them so much, was their shared ability to break my imagination out of the confines of isolation and into an entirely different part of the world. Into a living, breathing Dublin, complete with parts of its recent history, its literary and artistic culture, and the fascinating relationships between its fictional inhabitants. To that end, I would strongly suggest picking up these books if the idea of mentally experiencing and enjoying Dublin seems interesting, as perhaps, at least for now, reading is the closest many will get to travelling, and these three books evoke a far greater sense of a city or place than most films or TV shows could hope to achieve.
Image: Diogo Palhais via Unsplash