Deirdre Madden’s new novel Molly Fox’s Birthday is the story of a complicated friendship between three unique individuals: lauded Irish actor Molly Fox, who is away working in New York and London; Belfast-born art critic and television personality Andrew; and the unnamed narrator, a well-established female playwright who is struggling with a new work while staying in Molly’s Dublin home. The paperback spans in time only a single midsummer’s day, cut through with the narrator’s recollections of other moments in the history of her friendships with Andrew and Molly. But rather than coming off as stylistically ambitious, the one-day structure feels understated and yet wholly satisfying.
The intimacy of inhabiting Molly’s house, staying among her things, runs parallel to Molly’s career, as an actor, of inhabiting other characters’ selves. Molly’s house is filled with precious belongings, as distinctive as Molly herself, which makes Molly’s lack of emotional attachment to these material possessions all the more curious and reflective of a deeper detachment that affects all of her relationships.
Each of the three main characters has a brother who serves as a foil and a tie back to pasts that each has tried to escape in order to reinvent themselves. The narrator’s brother is Tom, a Catholic priest who instilled in her a love of language that offered a world outside of their upbringing in a large farming family who “all lived in each other’s pockets” in a remote Northern Ireland town. Molly’s unstable brother Fergus tells a version of their childhood with the mother Molly villanizes that is quite different from Molly’s. But most poignant of all is Andrew’s relationship with his brother Billy, the favorite of his parents who was killed during the Troubles as a loyalist paramilitary.
This is a book about superstition and faith, about acting and pretending, about keeping secrets and telling stories. There is something wonderfully contained about its narrative, but there are infinitesimal details to savor on every page while the novel’s philosophical scope is wide. “Friendship is far more tragic than love,” thinks the narrator. “It lasts longer.”
Deirdre Madden, from Toomebridge, Co. Antrim, teaches at Trinity College Dublin and is the author of eight other novels. She has won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, the Somerset Maugham Award, and the Hennessy Award. Molly Fox’s Birthday was a finalist for the Orange Prize.
– Kara Rota
(240 pages / Faber & Faber / $14)
In The Best of It, United States 2008-2010 Poet Laureate Kay Ryan offers selections of new poetry alongside earlier works in a volume that is sure to satisfy long-time fans and new readers alike. While The Best of It adopts the structure of a retrospective, it proceeds forward at a confident stride, maintaining the freshness and intensity that earned Ryan her status as one of America’s greatest living poets and led to her appointment as the Library of Congress’ sixteenth Poet Laureate in 2008. She has a particular skill in making the familiar refreshing and the ethereal tangible. After each poem, the reader is not sure whether to pause in contemplation or at once barrel onward, hungry for more. The Best of It takes its title from from a poem in Ryan’s volume The Niagara River (2005), that reads in part:
However carved up / or pared down we get, / we keep on making / the best of it as though / it doesn’t matter that / our acre’s down to / a square foot.
Here is poetry that even the non-poetry-lover can enjoy. In its clarity and wisdom, The Best of It offers no less than the title promises.
– Dianne Nora
(288 pages / Grove Press / $24)
Nick Laird is an Irish-born poet known for his political themes and emotional resonance. His latest book of poems, On Purpose, is a slim 65 pages saturated with heartbreaking ruminations on relationships, and the mundane elevated to the lyrical. Some of the poems are small and sweet (“As opposed to those that flow / because an onion is reduced to pieces / … / authentic tears, like these, like yours, / contain much higher rates of manganese, / thought responsible for sadness.” Others, like “The Underwood No. 4,” four pages long, span great emotional distances in Laird’s taut language. “Lipstick” stands out as an extraordinarily visceral and powerful piece. Influenced by the journal of a British soldier who participated in liberating Bergen-Belsen in 1945, it recreates the incredible image of a relief truck filled with lipstick tubes descending upon concentration camp victims.
Inspired by a myriad of influences including his love of Seamus Heaney and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, Nick Laird transmutes human frustrations, grudges and anxieties into cathartic beauty in On Purpose.