- Reading the Contemporary Irish Novel by Liam Harte
Liam Harte’s Reading the Contemporary Irish Novel 1987–2007 is a well-written and engaging reading of the work of nine contemporary Irish novelists: Roddy Doyle, John McGahern, Patrick McCabe, Colm Tóibín, William Trevor, Edna O’Brien, Seamus Deane, Sebastian Barry, and Anne Enright. Each chapter focuses principally on one novel, although each makes broad reference to the writer’s entire canon. Harte defines his project as having been “written primarily for [End Page 143] third-level students of Irish literature and culture, and as such my textual choices have been significantly influenced by university syllabi at home and abroad, though my chief guide has been my sense of the moral and aesthetic quality of the fiction itself.” The writing is surely accessible to college and graduate students (although Harte is fond of the occasional use of the fifty-dollar word: “rebarbative,” “haptic,” “irredentism,” and “proleptic,” to name a few).
This book is an Irish Studies work: it reads each novel almost entirely in its Irish context. Harte is aware that “none of the writers included in this study would want their work to be read solely or perhaps even primarily in terms of its relation to sociohistorical realities,” but his study nonetheless focuses on the Ireland of the twenty-year period that Harte has delineated as a kind of epoch in Irish affairs. The dates are somewhat determined by the novels chosen: he starts with the publication of Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments in 1987 and ends with Anne Enright’s Man Booker Award–winning The Gathering in 2007. Harte states that he chose the novels partially on the basis of the prestigious awards they garnered, but if so, it is notable that he leaves out John Banville’s 2005 Man Booker Prize-winning novel, The Sea. In that novel, with the painter Pierre Bonnard for inspiration, Banville makes impossible any view of life that finds a center in any particular situation, yet Banville consciously moves us beyond postmodern fragmentation. Harte, despite his disclaimers, creates a post-nationalist center for his view of 1987–2007 novels.
Given the identification of a specific period, most readers would probably guess that the dates chosen related to such events as the church’s sexual abuse scandals, the Celtic Tiger, and the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, and that the ending year 2007 stands as the last year before the collapse of the Celtic Tiger. Harte refers to these events, but pays little attention to the 2008 crash and says relatively little regarding the Celtic Tiger. He does focus on the November 1987 IRA bombing in Enniskillen, and he points to the dramatic increase in immigration from “central Europe, Asia, and Africa, which peaked at 110,000 in the twelve months to April 2007 … the herald of a multicultural future and a trigger for racially motivated attacks on foreigners.” On the subject of church sexual misconduct, he singles out the scandal of Eamon Casey, the Galway bishop, who in 1992 was found to have been the father of a son living in America. The Ryan Report on child abuse came out in 2009, but Harte does point to the ongoing revelations that preceded it during the period covered by his study.
It may seem odd that we need a New Historicist reading of such recent Irish history, but Harte makes a good case for his selection of key events. He writes to show how the novelists chosen elucidate “the need for a fuller, more historicized understanding of the present.” In practice, this means that he writes by centering on the post-nationalist, revisionist history of Roy Foster, with strong certainty about the relevance of postcolonial approaches to Irish literature, and with a [End Page 144] broad acquaintance with social and behavioral studies of repressed trauma. He describes his approach to the literature as eclectic and not wedded to any particular theory. In general this is true—although it must be said that his approach to...