- Reading the Contemporary Irish Novel 1987–2007 by Liam Harte
"It is by no means clear what the big story of Ireland actually is," wrote Irish journalist Fintan O'Toole in a 2001 Irish Times essay, "or indeed that the whole notion of 'Ireland' as a single framework has any validity" (quoted in Harte 9). Liam Harte's insightful Reading the Contemporary Irish Novel 1987–2007 ventures some compelling answers to these dilemmas through a careful study of nine twentieth-century novelists who, in stylistically absorbing ways, weave "history, memory, and belonging" into the story of twenty-first century Ireland (3). As a volume in the Reading The Novel series edited by Daniel R. Schwarz, Harte's book succeeds in delivering to his intended audience—advanced undergraduates and graduate students—a lucid survey of the contemporary Irish novel by showcasing, in each chapter, the variety of literary responses to recent transformations in the Republic and Northern Ireland.
"Direct, close engagement with the individual texts matters more to me," writes Harte, "than elaborating a fixed critical position or adhering to a particular academic mandate" (2). An admirable method, to be sure, one Harte supplements with an abiding thematic focus: the persistence of trauma and aspirations toward recovery in novels about the Irish nation between 1987–2007, a period defined by accelerated, oft improbable, changes in Irish life. Harte's informative introduction succinctly maps out the historical grounds [End Page 567] in which these novels and, by extension, his close readings take root. While economic stagnation, mass emigration, and sectarian violence defined the Irish experience in the 1980s and early 1990s, so Harte argues, a more prosperous and peaceful nation emerged in the late 1990s and 2000s for two main reasons. First, the Belfast Agreement of 1998 (and the subsequent power-sharing agreement in 2007) created frameworks for relative peace in Northern Ireland. Second, in the Republic, tax breaks, appeals to foreign investors, and shifts in political policy smoothed the way for a high-tech economy, one that boasted a 6.5% growth rate throughout the 1990s, earning it the robust appellation the "Celtic Tiger." "By the century's end," writes Harte, "Ireland Inc. was being touted as the poster child of globalization" (5).
And yet, Harte outlines how this pat story of transformation, from woebegone Eire in the 1980s to Celtic Tiger boom times in the 2000s, obscures a host of ongoing sociopolitical crises, the evidence here ranging from child sexual abuse by Catholic priests to ongoing poverty in rural counties. Consequently, Harte is drawn to writers who "find deficiencies in totalizing narratives of the past, refuse to fix the nation in unambiguous paradigms, and pose awkward, complex questions about the adequacy of nationality as a foundational fiction for the self" (3). The first chapter begins on March 27, 1987, the day Roddy Doyle's The Commitments first appeared in bookstores; subsequent chapters scrutinize works by John McGahern, Patrick McCabe, Colm Tóibín, William Trevor, Edna O'Brien, Seamus Deane, and Sebastian Barry. The final chapter is on Anne Enright's The Gathering, which won the 2007 Man Booker prize. Each chapter includes a critical biography—particularly useful for those not familiar with recent Irish history—followed by scrupulous close readings of a major novel by each author that weaves in secondary materials pulled from the ranks of postcolonial and cultural criticism, feminism, and, most frequently (though not most surprisingly given the subject matter), psychoanalysis and trauma theory.
When writing about the overlap between the Irish nation and the "ideology of the nuclear family" (3), Harte is particularly insightful, arguing that the struggles of one family expose the uneven course of Ireland's economic and social development since the late 1980s. Take, for example, the case of the working-class Rabbitte family in Doyle's Barrytown trilogy, The Commitments (1987), The Snapper (1990), and The Van (1991). As Harte notes, the rollicking spirit of The Commitments, which focuses on Jimmy Rabbitte Jr.'s attempt to [End Page 568] start an Irish soul...