Poet Enda Wyley reveals what she’s been reading in this time of quiet and isolation.
Books have always been a constant in our house, stacked on tables, by beds, on the stairs, or lining the shelves in our kitchen where we are caught smiling now by the photographer, in a picture of us with our grinning dog, a lifetime of reading surrounding us.
It’s to these books that I find myself returning in the surreal situation of lockdown that we are all in. Time has slowed, days have lengthened and there is no greater pleasure to be had than to go back to books read and loved before and to dive into them again.
Penelope Fitzgerald, the English novelist, unexpectedly won the Booker Prize at age sixty-three and said to friends, ‘I knew I was an outsider.’ Her books are always rooted in the outskirts of society and her novels speak with a wry humour, intelligence and empathy about the lives of the unprivileged and vulnerable. As the critic and biographer Hermione Lee said, ‘Her books inhabit a small space, but seem magically to reach out beyond it.’
For all of these reasons, I have been thoroughly enjoying again her novel, The Beginning of Spring. My copy is tugged from the shelf, slightly dusty, mug-stained and battered but is still very much fit for a full and entertaining read. It’s March 1913 and Frank Reid, an English painter living in Moscow, finds himself abandoned by his wife. She’s caught a train back to England, leaving Frank with three young children to care for. All seems utterly hopeless until into his world comes a country girl Lisa Ivanovna. Suddenly change is in the air in this brilliant novel fuelled by Fitzgerald’s trademark humour and off-beat observations of life. One of the great benefits for me of being in isolation was rereading this masterful creation of a Russian city, a vanished time and one man’s struggles within it.
Another novel I have been delving into again is Exposure, by the poet and writer Helen Dunmore. This deceptively simple novel haunted me so much on first reading it, that I wanted to arrive again in London, 1960, and to re-enter the world of this brilliant spy thriller. I have long been an admirer of her poetry too and I’ve also been reading Dunmore’s final collection of poems, Inside the Wave, which I recommend as an eloquent companion to any of her other novels too including – Zennor in Darkness, A Spell of Winter, The Betrayal and her last and perhaps finest novel, Birdcage Walk.
But other books have also appeared in my lockdown world, not just the ones on my shelves. For fun, I’ve been reading Georgette Heyer’s Faro’s Daughter, lent to me by my neighbour. We have an informal book swap going, initiated by lockdown, where social distancing is adhered to and books are carefully left for each other on pillars or hedges. The system is working well so far, and I owe much to my neighbour for introducing me to Heyer’s work. Margaret Drabble described her books as, ‘stylish, romantic, sharp and witty.’ And I’m having a great time following the escapades of the handsome Max Ravenscar, wealthiest man in London, whose life is disrupted by the woman his cousin is determined to marry, in this page turner Faro’s Daughter.
For my birthday recently, a book package arrived from the fantastic Dublin bookshop Books Upstairs, courtesy of my husband. I have begun the poet Alice Lyons’s debut novel Oona, just published by Lilliput Press. It is an o-less novel, owing its imaginative and structured approach to Oulipo, a philosophy of writing which celebrates constraint. Oona follows the fraught journey of a child of first-generation American migrants as she moves into adulthood, emerges as an artist and engages with her grief through art and landscape. I have found the absence of the letter ‘o,’ to be unobtrusive in a story that is proving to be originally structured and engaging. Her novel has also inspired me to start dipping in to The Penguin Book of Oulipo, edited by Philip Terry and published by Faber last year, which features 100 pieces of prose and poetry from famous Oulipians, including George Perec, Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, Jonathan Swift, and Lewis Carroll. Anyone who enjoys wordplay and literary puzzles will enjoy this unusual anthology.
I often have many books on the go and am also enjoying Maggie O’Farrell’s new novel Hamnet, inspired by Shakespeare’s son who died at the age of 11 in Stratford-upon-Avon and whose name was given to one of his father’s most famous plays. I look forward to our bookclub meeting on Zoom – a new departure for us all. But the lack of our usual shared food and wine will be more than made up for in our discussion of this dazzling novel from one of my favourite contemporary writers. It’s a novel where, surprisingly, the central focus of the book is not the famous playwright but rather, his wife Agnes – and in this way, O’Farrell cleverly allows the tragic effects of the death of a beloved young son on a family to come to the fore in this skilfully written study of grief.
Novels aside, there has also been daily poetry activity taking place in our house since the start of this strange period of social isolation. My husband Peter Sirr is also a poet and he has been busy posting Lines for a Lockdown on Facebook and Twitter every morning, a series which showcases a poem a day by Irish and international poets – all of which have been receiving hugely positive responses. The poems chosen by Peter are skilfully curated and are inspiring, often very funny, as in this poem by Martina Evans, which proves that even in lockdown, laughter is possible.
Enda Wyley is a poet and member of Aosdána. Her sixth collection of poetry, The Painter on his Bike, was published by Dedalus Press, 2019. She has worked as a poet for Dublin City Council Culture Company’s The National Neighbourhood Project, 2018, and also has run a series of poetry writing classes for their creative ‘taster sessions,’ at Richmond Barracks in Dublin 8 earlier this year.
Peter Sirr’s new book of poetry, The Gravity Wave, Gallery Press, 2019 was a Poetry Society recommendation. He is a member of Aosdána. His daily Lines for Lockdown, featuring Irish and International poets can be accessed through #lockdownpoetry on Facebook and Twitter, and on his blog The Cat Flap.
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