“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.
Thursday, June 23, 2016
The novel opens in 1870, as the expected Revolution draws near and Frederick and Lizzie move to London from Manchester to be closer to Karl and Jenny Marx. They move into a grand house in Primrose Hill, where the addition of a couple of servants proves vexing to Lizzie, who finds herself working harder to keep tabs on her girls than she ever did when she kept her own home. Such paradoxes are rife in Mrs Engels: Frederick, when Lizzie first meets him, is often vilified by the comrades as a ‘capitalist and millocrat’, a well-heeled German immigrant accustomed to moving in the best social circles. “It’s not uncommon that [Frederick] has to answer to this charge,” Lizzie observes, “not uncommon even though the world knows he worked in that mill to keep Karl and the Movement afloat. And knock me acock if I ever see Karl having to defend himself in this way.”
Gavin McCrea has crafted a beautifully detailed historical fiction in Mrs Engels, and the political backdrop is indeed a compelling one as he describes the revolutionary frustrations of Engels and Marx, the fall-out to the Franco-Prussian war and the consequent rise and fall of the Paris Commune, and the rise of militant Irish nationalism in Britain. Lizzie’s drawing room hosts agitators, revolutionaries and activists of all hues, but there’s none so fascinating as Lizzie herself, toasted at one point by Engels as a ‘Proletarian, Irish rebel and model Communist.’ In truth, Lizzie is far more difficult to label that her lover realises. From the very beginning Lizzie tells us that she’s a pragmatic woman whose loyalty is only her own survival: “Establish yourself in a decent situation,” is her advice to all young women, “and put away what you can, that, please God, one day you may need no man’s help.”
It’s a pragmatism born of surviving the worst of Manchester’s Victorian slums, and in overcoming the personal tragedy that brought Lizzie and Frederick together but which haunts them for the rest of their lives. Through it all Lizzie retains her robust sense of humour and her irreverent refusal to kow-tow to those who consider Frederick and Karl geniuses (“As for Karl, the state he was in, he was unable to mastermind the evacuation of his own bowels.”)
Bawdy and uncouth, very much a woman who lives life on her own terms despite her economic dependence, Lizzie Burns is one of the most charming fictional comic creations of recent times. If that were all Gavin McCrea had achieved with Mrs Engels, it would have been plenty; but Lizzie Burns is also a heartbreakingly poignant heroine, a woman fully aware of her status as ‘a pauper woman on an expensive couch’ who has to endure society’s jibes about ‘my hike to the higher caste’, and a woman who above all craves the love of a complex man hugely conflicted about his entitlement to love her.
Laugh-out-loud funny, touching and tender, and almost Dickensian in its physical descriptions of the Industrial Revolution’s worst excesses, Mrs Engels is a stunningly accomplished debut novel. ~ Declan Burke
This review was first published in the Irish Examiner.
Wednesday, June 22, 2016
Bill Beverly’s Dodgers (No Exit Press, €19.50) is a road movie, a coming-of-age tale, a crime novel of gritty realism and a very impressive debut. East is a 15-year-old lookout for his Uncle Fin’s crack den in LA’s Boxes; when the den is raided on his watch, East is ordered to drive 2,000 miles to Wisconsin, there to murder a witness in Fin’s upcoming trial. Dressed in LA Dodgers’ baseball gear – “because white people love baseball, and the world is made of white people” – East and his fellow assassins embark on their quest, “running on luck and will and a supreme indifference to anything else.” In other circumstances East’s emotional intelligence would mark him out as a natural leader of men, but these teenage boys are, in the best tradition of noir, doomed even before they begin. Their road to nowhere diverts time and again into scenarios that might be blackly comic, given the boys’ ineptitude, ignorance of the world outside the ghetto and their blithe faith in their immortality, if it were not for the chilling presence of Ty, East’s brother and an unrepentant stone-cold killer at the tender age of 13. Comparisons with Richard Price’s Clockers are merited; Dodgers is an absorbing tale of young men brutalised by the world with very little opportunity to offer anything more than brutality in return.
This column was first published in the Irish Times.
Tuesday, June 21, 2016
Jim Francis has finally found the perfect life – and is now unrecognisable, even to himself. A successful painter and sculptor, he lives quietly with his wife, Melanie, and their two young daughters, in an affluent beach town in California. Some say he’s a fake and a con man, while others see him as a genuine visionary.For the review, clickety-click here (and scroll down) …
But Francis has a very dark past, with another identity and a very different set of values. When he crosses the Atlantic to his native Scotland, for the funeral of a murdered son he barely knew, his old Edinburgh community expects him to take bloody revenge. But as he confronts his previous life, all those friends and enemies – and, most alarmingly, his former self – Francis seems to have other ideas.
When Melanie discovers something gruesome in California, which indicates that her husband’s violent past might also be his psychotic present, things start to go very bad, very quickly.
Sunday, June 19, 2016
(a) There is no God;
(b) God, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, doesn’t really care for music;
(c) God was heedless, careless or jealously vindictive;
(d) God was too busy saving starving orphans; and anyway, if Schubert was really all that, he’d have been smart enough not to contract typhoid fever / syphilis / the bubonic plague (and, viz. deafness, ditto for Beethoven).
Seppings flung wide the gates, there was a flash of blonde hair and a whiff of Chanel Number Five and a girl came sailing in, a girl whom I was able to classify at a single glance as a pipterino of the first water.Meanwhile, if it’s a good movie you’re thirsting after, you’ll go parched a while yet in this most barren of summers. This week in the Irish Examiner I reviewed Gods of Egypt, The Conjuring 2 and Bang Gang, none of which could be remotely described as the celluloid equivalent of a pipterino of the first water. If you’re still interested, the reviews can be found here …