Saturday 18 August 2018

Looking for the perfect beach read? How about a murder, an earthquake, and buried secrets?

Fiction

The Night of the Party

Rachael English

Hachette Books Ireland, paperback, 393 pages, €14.99

The Hideaway

Sheila O'Flanagan

Headline, paperback, 416 pages, €14.99

Rachael English
Rachael English
Sheila O'Flanagan
Rachael English's 'The Night of the Party'
Sheila O'Flanagan's 'The Hideaway'

Lorraine Courtney

When a book opens with the murder of the parish priest you can't let it go, you have to read on, don't you? I read all 393 pages of Rachael English's new novel greedily, unable to put it down.

It's January 1982 and Kilmitten is the sort of small village where everyone knows everyone's business. Local couple Haulie and Cora Crossan are holding their annual party.

Tom, Conor, Tess and Nina are four teenage friends doing what most bored Irish teenagers would - drinking in an outside shed. At the end of the night Father Leo Galvin's body is discovered.

"We've got to own up," Conor says. Tom disagrees: "If we say anything about the shed we'll be in big trouble."

"I still say we've got to tell the truth. It'll come out eventually and then we'll get major grief," Conor insists. But Tom refuses - he saw something that night and needs to keep it a secret. He needs to protect Nina.

The years pass, the four grow up and the lives of Tom, Conor, Tess and Nina drift apart. But the crime binds them all in an uncomfortable pact and creates so much tension and excitement you suddenly can't read the book fast enough.

Thirty-five years and, Conor, now a senior police officer, thinks that Tom, a politician, knows who Father Galvin's killer is. He's determined to finally solve the case.

English's book has the great power of ordinariness. Here is a slightly scruffy Ireland, described in unforced, unfussy prose and she has such a knack for small, purposeful details.

Settings, like the back gardens of Pearse Terrace where Paudge Slattery is "making heavy work of cutting his lawn" and the Duggans' children are "screeching like monkeys", or the "dusty tang" of London's underground as Tess walks by stalls selling exotic fruits like watermelon and cherries, are quietly but brilliantly visual and full of feeling.

Her main characters are alive with the same sort of unshowy independence. Particularly good are Conor and unsettled Tom, still in love with Nina and protecting her: "Tom was standing on a ledge. He could choose to jump. Or he could walk back. How sweet it would be to take control. To say, 'Here's why I know.' Tom knew he couldn't hurt Nina."

The resulting work is something new from English, something beautiful, compelling, and sincere in the way of the very best stories and the best books.

There's no greater pleasure this time of the year than a frothy beach read and Sheila O'Flanagan's The Hideaway is one of the best for summer 2018.

Secrets are a strong theme here too. Juno Ryan thinks she has met the perfect man: a handsome consultant radiologist. Brad is everything and more.

He heads off to visit family in Italy for a few days and Juno tells us: "I thought about him every day for the next few days, and although I was too busy to have hot quivering thoughts at work, I was missing him more than ever at night."

But there's an earthquake and Brad is killed, along with the wife he was keeping a secret from Juno. Her world comes tumbling down and with Brad dead, Juno has no way of finding out how he really felt about her.

She takes a break from her job, borrows a friend's Spanish villa and is soon making sweet love among the orange groves and jacaranda trees with Pep, the village winemaker's sexy son.

The summer days flit by and Juno busies herself with DIY on the neglected villa and chasing Pep. One of the local girls convinces Juno to ask Magda, a psychic, what will become of her love life. She does and Magda tells her that yet another tall, dark, handsome stranger will come into her life. Enter Max, Brad's half-brother.

It's not all lightness. The book tracks Juno's overwhelming grief for her broken life and her efforts to move on. "Spain was having a weird effect on me," she tells us. "All the things I don't believe in - ghosts and spirits and stuff that you can't see and prove - seemed to be insinuating themselves into my thoughts. And I was powerless to stop them."

There are twists - and then some. There are larger-than-life characters. O'Flanagan's stylishness as a writer never tips over into shtickiness or stifles her warmth though - it only makes the flowering of genuine emotion more powerful.

O'Flanagan has always been a true and honest writer, which is why she is one of the fairly few who really matter.

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