'Striped Pyjamas' author looks to home in dark tales of abuse: Week in Book column


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It is curious how short stories by Irish writers exude such a strong sense of place, and identity, even when there is a concerted attempt to escape Ireland, from James Joyce’s Dubliners to Edna O’Brien’s collections which emanate the nostalgia of self-imposed exile.

John Boyne, best known for Holocaust bestseller, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, is a Dubliner, though we may not have known it but for his last novel,  A History of Loneliness (2014), which returned him home fictionally, back to Ireland for the first time.

Now his first short story collection, Beneath The Earth (Doubleday, £14.99), published later this month, tracks the light and dark of Ireland’s past and present, from rivalries between old friends to whisperings of “aberrant” sexualities and the divided loyalties of Irishmen during the two world wars. There is some levity, a bit of banter, one or two functional marriages, but mostly there is darkness, with stories that return time and again to the child who has been abused, and the dead-eyed abuser, who barely acknowledges the violence he (or in some cases, she) wreaks. If A History of Loneliness exposed dysfunction within the Catholic church and its passive victims, here suffering occurs within another hallowed institution – the nuclear family, an apparent place of safety that in fact does not protect its most vulnerable, its children.

Boyne is particularly strong on dramatising child and teen sensibilities but here we see how the badness of adults spills over and infects these damaged children. The emotional numbness in the narrative voice of a 19-year-old rent boy in the opening story, “Boy 19”, sets the tone for the collection. As a child, he is removed from his home – his father running away with a mistress, his mother crumbling into alcoholism and (it is intimated) child abuse. Pretty, precocious, a gifted student who becomes the toast of the social services and his schoolteachers, he is stuck in his carapace of external success while suffering from a kind of internal bleeding, brought on by his parent’s bad parenting. The shock of the story comes in his emotional deadness as he catalogues his sexual encounters, the beatings, the occasional tenderness and the buried trauma of discovering his estranged father has called up his number for casual sex.

His emotional disconnect re-emerges in the chilling pathologies of both abusers and abused across these 12 stories. Sometimes the legacy of abuse leads victims to become aggressors, such as the secretly gay teenage boy who comes out to his sister in “Haystack Girl” (she cruelly tells the school, and suffers his horrifyingly calculated retaliation). The father in the  titular story, “Beneath the Dead”, abuses his daughter without, it seems, an iota of guilt. There is a story, “Araby”, named after Joyce’s in Dubliners, that perhaps, in this title, represents the Ireland that Joyce sought to flee, only for the city of his birth to emerge as his inner landscape forever after, and that captures some of the frustrations that Boyne’s characters  also feel towards the place they call home.

Sophomore slump? not for the authors on the booker longlist

Man Booker’s longlist has apparently made 2015 the year of the Americans, with five authors shortlisted, even if Jonathan Franzen isn’t one of them. It wasn’t Kazuo Ishiguro’s year either, nor Kate Atkinson’s, nor William Boyd, nor – for the shame of it – Michel Faber’s, though all of these British authors should figure on summer reading lists because their latest novels are really very good.

If Man Booker’s longlist has to be the year of anything though, it is most definitely the year of the second novel. The difficult “second album” that has everything-to-lose and has paralysed some novelists following their first’s success appears to have found its momentum.

   Second novels include Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways, Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account, Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings and the bookies’ favourite, Hawaiian-American Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. In each case their debuts made waves too:  Yanagihara’s was widely praised last year while Sahota’s, which was written in diary form from the point of view of a suicide bomber, earned him a place on Granta magazine’s “best British novelists under the age of 40” last year. Jamaican-born James’s first novel, a visceral account of slavery, saw him as a finalist in the National Book Critics Circle Award in America, and Lalami’s first book was longlisted for the Orange prize in 2010.