Fiction: A Sabbatical in Leipzig
The Lilliput Press, €12
Freedom is a Land I Cannot See
Sandstone Press, €10.99
Two Irish male writers have novels out this summer, one a relative newcomer, the other an elder statesman, both bringing new ideas and fresh perspectives to their writing. Peter Cunningham, a well-established author, known for historical novels that fuse political history with psychological realism, delivers an intriguing story in Freedom is a Land I Cannot See, set in 1924 Ireland.
Adrian Duncan's contemporary, thought-provoking meditation on life and death, art and artefacts, bridges and buildings, A Sabbatical in Leipzig, follows hot on the heels of his highly acclaimed debut novel Notes From a German Building Site and marks him out as one to watch.
Both of these novels shine a light on new and interesting topics: the turbulent years of the nascent Irish Free State in Cunningham's; architecture and buildings, surfaces and texture in Duncan's.
I often tell my students of creative writing to keep a notebook in their pockets, to write down things they notice each day. This trains the eye and the mind to be more observant, to look for the extraordinary in the ordinary.
A Sabbatical in Leipzig is a masterclass in this: a stunning example of paying attention to the minutest of details and looking at the world with keen eyes and a quiet but curious mind.
The deceptively simple plot revolves around retired bridge engineer Michael, who now lives alone in the Spanish city of Bilbao, after the death of his longtime partner Catherine some years before. Over the course of one day, he reminisces on projects he previously worked on, bridges he built, people he worked with.
He recollects moments from his past: summer days working on the bog with his brother, an encounter with a labourer on the Rural Electrification Scheme, his life in Leipzig with Catherine, a colleague who committed suicide. He meditates on the nature of loneliness, memories, the angle of light, lines on a page and the nature of language itself. He lives a simple solitary life with few possessions: a copy of Robert Walser's short stories, the porcelain cup and saucer once owned by Catherine and an old Polaroid photo taken by his brother.
His day is structured around listening to two versions of the same piece of music, Schubert's Trout Quintet, before walking the same route to the Guggenheim Museum. What I enjoyed so much about this beautiful, pensive book is how it made me look at the world differently. I love the way he writes about angles and intersections, about tracing paper and shadow images, about bubbles and porcelain in such precise, luminous prose, in sentences filled with images that take your breath away. An unusual gem of a book.
Freedom is a Land I Cannot See, set in Howth, Dublin, tells the story of a young blind woman, Rose Raven, her lover Rudy and her beloved journalist brother Ultan, all caught up in the turbulence of post-independence Ireland. Photographs and first-hand accounts of an emerging new famine west of the Shannon, complete with ruined crops and local starvation, threaten to destabilise the fragile new government, who will do everything to suppress this information.
After the tragic death of Ultan, Rose becomes sole custodian of this dynamite anti- government evidence, which sets terrible events in motion. With a pacy plot, lyrical writing and compelling characters, this novel will interest those looking to understand the machinations of the state in those early years and to learn about this fascinating era.
These two novels spanning the century will certainly keep you entertained and informed over your summer holidays, wherever they may be.