Fact or Fiction? Ed Power pits Ian McEwan's 'The Children Act' against Karl Whitney's 'Hidden City: Adventures and Explorations in Dublin'
Hidden City: Adventures and Explorations in Dublin, Karl Whitney, Penguin Ireland, 4 Stars
Oh, how the capital has cried out for a book like this: a metaphysical travelogue that delves into the hidden history of Dublin and breathes deep of its psychosphere, much as the writer Iain Sinclair has in writings about the eerie fringes of London.
Ostensibly, Whitney is giving tribute to Joyce, setting out to visit all of the novelist's residences before he quit Ireland for good. But you don't have to be be one of the Bloomsday mob to enjoy Hidden City, as Whitney - like Joyce, a Dubliner now living abroad - has a sense of what makes Dublin unique that is vividly his own. Without question, this is a book about Dublin, not a book about Joyce and for that we should all be grateful.
In particular, he is good at making the banal feel slightly exotic. He sees ghosts of Dublin's roiling past everywhere yet is also excited by the restlessness of the modern conurbation. He is especially determined to go beyond the picture postcard idea of Dublin that can exist even in the minds of natives. The portrait he creates is of the Dublin we live in - not the Dublin of bad folk music and Bewley's wall-hangings.
Starting in Tallaght, where he grew up, Whitney is fascinated by the sense of life on the margins the suburb exudes. It is huge, spilling over with people and drama, and yet there seems to be an unspoken agreement the vast south western sprawl is not part of the Dublin experience 'proper', a designation which gives the area a distinctive, twilit sensibility.
From there he travels through the Liberties, to Ballsbridge, where he stops to drink in the view of the skyscrapers never built, and to Bray, another bustling settlement inhabiting its own slipstream. Facing the sea, he fancies he can discern snow glistening on the peaks of Welsh mountains. This is a fascinating travelogue that will make you look at Dublin with fresh eyes.
The Children Act, Ian McEwan, Jonathan Cape - 3 Stars
What a strange career Ian McEwan has had. In the late 70s, he was British literature's scandalous newcomer, his work throbbing with gothic weirdness, distinguished by a facility for writing skin-crawling nastiness.
But the exalted sordidness of his early output was soon replaced by something stodgier. Just as your favourite band inevitably grow more bloated and tiresomely respectable with age, so McEwan has calcified into a rather dreary late-middle age writer, the toast of literary London, for sure, but, detractors might argue, with little to interest readers outside his social spectrum.
You can get a sense where he is at from the protagonists of his most recent books. Solar was about a climate change scientist; Saturday chronicled a day in the life of a high-flying doctor. His latest, meanwhile, concerns the travails of Fiona Maye, a family court judge in (of course) central London, whose husband has just announced he wishes to have an affair.
Naturally this causes consternation - a situation not helped as he assures her it isn't personal. Yes of course, he still loves her. It's just that their love life has turned rather dry and dull and, with limited years left, he yearns to spice up his dessicated existence. Hence his decision to conduct a fling with a 28-year-old assistant.
If that wasn't difficult enough - which it is - Maye is wrestling with regrets over her childlessness and a difficult case involving a teenage Jevoah's Witness who has declined a blood transfusion. Should she over-rule his wishes, and those of his parents, in order to save his life? Or ought his beliefs be respected?
This is McEwan's 13th novel and, as ever, the prose is gilded and free of flub notes. However, caring for his characters is not easy - they are, to a man and woman, self-obsessed, self-consciously 'metropolitan' and, in truth, rather tiresome company.
Verdict: Non Fiction
First published in INSIDER Magazine, exclusive to Thursday's Irish Independent