Monday 18 June 2018

Books: Three for the road: Drama, date swaps and delightful dahlias

'Lyrical': Ella Griffin fuses nostalgia with symbolism
'Lyrical': Ella Griffin fuses nostalgia with symbolism

Maggie Armstrong

This time of year could do with a new post-holiday wind-down period set aside purely for reading. Here is a stack of three new novels to look out for with this mental harvesting in mind - novels more targeted at women than men.

Muriel Bolger is a travel writer- turned novelist, setting her stories closer to home these days. In her latest, Out of Focus (Hachette, €17.99), she's definitely home, striking right into the heart of the Irish conscience. Like Ann O'Loughlin has done in her recent novel The Ballroom Café, Bolger turns to wizened, old, institutional Ireland to tell a story of a young woman sent to a mother-and-baby home.

Told in a quiet, undramatic tone, Out of Focus deftly pulls together intersecting lives - Sandra, pregnant at 13 and turfed out by her parents; Kieran, Sandra's grown son, now faced with a painful family problem of his own; Leah, Sandra's daughter, and her marital fortunes with her wretched and faithless husband, Adam.

These lives provide strong apparatus for a good story though for me, the characters living them were not interesting or original enough to really win my sympathy. They seemed a little, well, out of focus. Except for Adam, who is painted as a silly, cheating monster, and the make-up-on-his-shirt betrayal scenario is one we have read before.

English Eva Chase makes a fine stab at a family saga in Black Rabbit Hall (Michael Joseph, €19.10), a chunky tale set in a rollicking country house. Swapping time periods from the 60s to the present day, this lavishly told story is ideal fireside reading and unbidden memories of our own childhood family holidays are sure to bubble up.

It's an oddly familiar place, this fictional mansion. Though one thing that really irked this reader was that the child narrator, Amber, wrote like a fully accomplished novelist aged 14.

A light, but not necessarily easy read comes in the shape of Ella Griffin's third novel, The Flower Arrangement (Orion Books, €18.99). What a melancholy story this is, set in a flower shop in Dublin's Camden Street, owned by Lara, who is broken-hearted. Her reasons are understandable: a lost baby, a gay husband, a family death.

The book's motif is loud and clear, booming loud: flowers. The healing ways of flowers, their symbolism, the craft of the fairy godmother florist who bonds together her customers with bouquets.

You emerge from these pages an expert in botany. Long hours of flower arrangement make for lyrical, rather than riveting reading, and sometimes you just wish the book made you laugh more.

I did enjoy the distinctly Dublin setting, with mention of everywhere from Bull's Island to Baggot Street celebrating the city, not in a flowery way.

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