Sister in the shadows

Caroline Kennedy Photograph: nycprowler.com
Caroline Kennedy Photograph: nycprowler.com

Christina Hunt Mahoney reviewed The Rising of Bella Casey in last week’s Irish Times.  Here’s her take on the novel complete with Caroline Kennedy reference!

O’Brien Press continues its impressive revival of the Brandon imprint with Mary Morrissy’s first novel in more than a decade. The Rising of Bella Casey is the imaginative afterlife of an historical person, not the first time Morrissy has constructed such a fiction. The Pretender is the postmodern tale of a Polish factory worker who claimed to have been the Grand Duchess Anastasia. Morrissy’s new book partakes of a related tradition: a fictive life of a family member who was a satellite to a great writer. We’ve had Rameau’s Niece, by Cathleen Schine, and several incarnations of Shakespeare’s sister, so why not an Irish entry into the genre?

Morrissy’s oeuvre is small but fine, also including the metafictional Mother of Pearl and a disturbing collection of short stories, A Lazy Eye (the protagonist of the title story, in a timely detail, envies Caroline Kennedy’s good fortune to have had a father worthy of assassination). Morrissy’s work has been recognised with a Cullman Fellowship at the New York Public Library and a prestigious Lannan Literary Award. She is truly a writer’s writer, but one with an avid following.

Isabella Casey was Seán O’Casey’s sister, a minor figure in his multivolume autobiography. Fifteen years her brother Jack’s senior, Bella was a second mother to the boy who would “rise” to fame years later. The real Bella married beneath her and seems to have fallen out of the family narrative. Morrissy recreates for her a life that fills the gaps in her story.

Dodging bullets

As the novel opens, on Easter Monday, 1916, we see an obsessed, middle-aged Bella risking her life, and that of her young son, dodging bullets on Dublin’s streets to drag an abandoned piano back to their house. (This is a book in which keyboard instruments come and go, indicating changes in the family’s fortunes.) Bella’s rescue of the piano is a symbolic act, restitution for years of deprivation with an abusive English soldier. The novel then returns to Bella’s early days as the promising scholarship girl, the proud new teacher in Dominick Street, and finally the victim of the violent act that brought an end to her dreams.

The geography shifts twice to England – signalled by a change in font – and the reader encounters a blocked Seán, working on his life’s story, first in Battersea and later in Totnes. Here the novel becomes more complex, also more akin to the writer’s earlier style. Not only is she creating Bella’s lost years, she is simultaneously crafting a fiction to explain Seán’s reluctance to deal with Bella’s life in print, told from his perspective. O’Casey, in Morrissy’s rendering, is a complex portrait, part socialist activist, part judgmental Edwardian brother.

His character is also hampered by being in possession of only some of the “facts” of Bella’s downfall, facts that are totally of Morrissy’s devising. There is thus something of a Chinese puzzle here, suitably couched in the melodramatic rhetoric of the period. The tone mimics some of O’Casey’s own writerly language, influenced as it was by his early exposure to the music hall and popular theatre. His characters also appear regularly, and he is given to thinking of his sister’s life as theatre.

Bella’s predicament is Dickensian, down to Morrissy’s decision to name the villain of the piece Reverend Leeper. Dickens or no, the crime committed within her pages is so brutal the nearly comical name and representation of Leeper seems to undercut the author’s intent. Similarly, with so many women in the novel who seem perfectly capable of defending themselves, one wonders at Bella’s continued naivete, pretension and timidity.

But The Rising of Bella Casey is a welcome volume, especially as we commemorate a formative stage in Ireland’s history and those who helped to make that history.

A Cork celebration of 2013 novels

time presentmaking way

The Rising of Bella Casey (Brandon Press)  is getting its Cork baptism on Thursday, December 5, at the Triskel Arts Centre at 8pm. I’m sharing the event, “A Celebration of Irish Novels published in 2013”,  with novelists Deirdre Madden (Time Present and Time Past) and Theo Dorgan (Making Way), so I’m in very good company.

Deirdre’s novels include The Birds of the Innocent Wood, Nothing is Black, One by One in the Darkness, Authenticity and Molly Fox’s birthday. Two of her novels have been shortlisted for the Orange Prize. The Guardian described Time Present and Time Past (Faber) as “a subtle, deeply thoughtful novel, its tone so clear that the writing plays over character and action like water over stones”.

Poet, screenwriter and cultural commentator Theo Dorgan has published two prose accounts of his transatlantic journeys by boat, Sailing for Home and Time On The Ocean.  Making Way (New Island Books) is his  first voyage into fiction. “This is controlled storytelling – writing a novel is like sailing a boat, requiring a mixture of craft and intuition…Theo Dorgan has both.”  –  Eilis Ní Dhuibhne

The event is happening at the Triskel Arts Centre on Thursday, December 5, 8pm.

Tickets €5 (includes wine reception) available from Triskel box office and online at www.triskelartscentre.ie  All welcome!

. . . then we take Berlin

Berlin_for_free_Titel_01

I have come to a sense of place in my writing very slowly.  When I started to write – back in the 1970s – I was intent on removing all traces of the “local” from my work.  I was afraid of being parochial and I was out of sympathy with the brand of Irish fiction that maundered on about the landscape, the bogs and the mountains.  I had grown up in a Dublin suburb and felt there was nothing specifically “Irish” about it – as far as I was concerned, it was like any other suburb in the Western world; a place of quiet desperation where nothing happened.

My debut collection of stories, A Lazy Eye, was shorn of place-names, or where there were names, they were neutralized, generic-sounding. The real names of Irish places didn’t seem “real” to me then; they seemed inauthentic, too Oirishy.  Perhaps that was some kind of post-colonial cultural cringe on my behalf.  Who knows?

Mother of Pearl, my first novel, continued the trend.  Based on a real-life kidnapping in Dublin in the 1950s, I set the action in a made-up city divided by a sectarian conflict – I envisaged the north of the city being Belfast and the south being Dublin.  Because the story had a mythic quality I didn’t want it to be grounded too closely in political realities; hence the disguise.

But, I discovered, historical fiction is merciless in its demands about place. With my second novel, The Pretender, set during the First World War and based on the story of Anna Anderson who claimed, falsely, to be Grand Duchess Anastasia, daughter of the last Tsar of Russia, the chickens came home to roost, if I can mix my metaphors.  Now I was duty-bound to real places – Berlin, Posnan, Charlottesville, Virginia – albeit not home territory, and places altered by time and war.  But real places, nonetheless, and demanding faithful re-creation.

Now I’ve come full circle. The Rising of Bella Casey – just published − which dramatizes the life of the sister of playwright Sean O’Casey, placed me firmly back on home turf.  My own city, Dublin, immortalized by the city’s stage laureate O’Casey in the early 20th century during one of the most turbulent periods in Ireland’s history. There could be no reaching for disguise this time. The novel is littered with place names – Dorset Street, Dominick Street, Mary Street, East Wall, Mountjoy Square, Fitzgibbon Street, Rutland Place and many more locations with strong O’Casey associations. These names no longer sound fake to me – have I changed, or have they?

I will be reading from The Rising of Bella Casey and discussing a sense of place in fiction as part of the Dublin Books Festival during a Reader’s Day event with Alison Jameson and Jennifer Johnston at Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin, on Saturday, November 16, at 10 a.m. See http://www.dublinbookfestival.com

Readers’ Day

dublin books fest

With Alison Jameson on the day.

Saturday, November  16, Smock Alley Theatre: 10 a.m.

I’ll be taking part in this event sponsored by Dublin City Public Libraries during the Dublin Books Festival (November 14 – 17). It’s a morning of book talk, hosted by journalist and author Dave Kenny. Emma Walsh of the Bord Gáis Energy Book Club, Bob Johnston, owner of the Gutter Bookshop and Mary Burnham of Dubray Books will advise on how to choose the best book club reads as well as talking about their personal favourite literary choices.

I’ll be reading from The Rising of Bella Casey, along with fellow writers Jennifer Johnston and Alison Jameson. We’ll also be discussing a sense of place in fiction.

For information on all events, go to www.dublinbookfestival.com

Fiction wins out

yvonne nolan

Literary journalist Yvonne Nolan (above) reviewed The Rising of Bella Casey on  the Arena arts programme, RTE Radio, Monday, October 22.  She was generously enthusiastic  about the language of the novel and the historical research, though she admitted being disappointed to learn that the “creepy” Rev Archibald Leeper was a wholly fictional creation.  A really good “bad” character.  She missed him when he disappeared from the narrative.  Just goes to show you, fiction always wins out. You can listen to a podcast of the show on http://www.rte.ie/radio1/podcast/podcast_arena.xml