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Enough to scare the crows

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Fox, Swallow, Scarecrow Eilis Ni Dhuibhne Blackstaff Press 8.99 Katrina Goldstone CONTEXT is everything.

Confronted with a proof copy of Fox, Swallow, Scarecrow and unable to find the press blurb that accompanied the book, I started out to read it completely unaware of its literary genre.

Slightly wrongfooted by the Tolstoy epigraph, I pressed on.

After a while the phrase "aboveaverage chick-lit" floated across my brain. Fine. Not exactly my cup of tea but this was a superior example of it, there were attempts at social critique, musings on 21st century Irish society, not terribly deep but what do you want from chicklit?

All the other ingredients were there . . . thwarted wives, unhappy career girls, about to find happiness with the nice guy after falling for the unreliable but handsome cad. I pictured a pink cover with gold scrolly letters.

Halfway through, a sneaking suspicion dawned that the book had a more grandiose intent, some greater commentary on human foibles, perhaps.

Long, long paragraphs hinted at profundities but ended up stating the obvious . . . the literary world is goldfish bowl small; people go to book launches to network; people get bored in marriage. Finally getting my hands on the elusive press release, it trumpeted the claim: that this was "inspired by Tolstoy". This is straying into dangerous territory. Even Fiction authors with a healthy ego would think twice about alluding to Tolstoy.

As it is Fox Scarecrow Swallow promises much more than it delivers, employs perennial themes of family reinterpreted for the internet age . . . unhappy woman (childrens' fiction writer) married to rich but neglectful husband; a few other hackneyed subplots are thrown in for good measure, also involving infidelity and betrayal. The incestuous literary world and 21st century Dublin provide the backdrop. Oh yes, and our heroine is called Anna. Add to this the mysterious tramp who reads War and Peace in doorways. There's even a character called Leo.

It could be a sly postmodern joke or a loving homage or pastiche. One thinks of Zadie Smith's On Beauty, a thoroughly contemporary take on EM Forster's Howard's End. Or Percival Everett's Erasure. Both in their own way are meditations on literature, that are at once fresh and playful. Except in this case the writing isn't quite clever enough to pull that off. Ditching with reckless abandon the writing class mantra, "show, don't tell", Ni Dhuibhne gives us way too much information: her characters burble on, with trite observations about Dublin and the LUAS and writers and foreign cleaners. Nothing is held back, until you feel you're being pummelled by soliloquies from a group of seriously self-obsessed narcissists. The end result being you just want to get as far away from them as possible. Yes, this is an age of self-obsession and pop therapy but Ni Dhuibhne doesn't nail this without sounding too much like the people she intends to satirise.

While it seems that may have been a lofty intention to searingly chronicle this new Irish society and all its foibles, by not displaying the courage of her convictions Ni Dhuibhne has ended up with a strange hybrid creature, neither sassy chicklit nor postmodern pastiche nor high literary art.

By the time the novel closes with several melodramatic events and a clever-clever final twist in the tale, a cack-handed reversal of the Anna Karenina ending, it's hard not to wish all of the characters would fall under a tram. At least that would put them . . . and us . . . out of their misery.


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Back To Top >> 07/10/2007





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