Archive | October, 2014

Review of Iain Banks ‘The Quarry’

26 Oct

Banks photo

by Rhea H. Boyden

The most enjoyable part of reading a novel for me is when I identify and get to the heart and core of the book’s message. And while I have never attempted to write a full novel, I still know the narcotic and giddy feeling you get as a writer when you reach that point in whatever you are writing, be it a poem, an article or an essay. The point where you feel ‘This is what I really have to say here. This is the grain of truth that sums it all up.’

In his final novel ‘The Quarry’ Iain Banks writes about six old friends who have a reunion in a crumbling house at the edge of a quarry. The owner of the house, Guy, is dying of cancer and his only son, Kit, aged 17, is the narrator of the story. Part of the story talks of how Guy deals with his fear of the disease, which is partially autobiographical as Iain Banks himself died of cancer only weeks before ‘The Quarry’ (which was his 27th novel), was published.

The heart of the story to me is the moment when Guy, his son Kit and the visiting friends are standing around the bonfire that they have just lit. It is a huge pile of junk that they have cleared out of the house (Guy was a hoarder). They all stand mesmerised by the fire watching it devour moth-eaten carpets, old wooden cupboards, boxes of paper, and bags filled with old clothes that Guy thought were too tattered to give to a charity shop. Kit describes the fire and the flames and how it becomes more furious and angry, turbo charged and excited. He then compares the fire to a river: ‘It starts small and hesitant, becomes bigger, quicker, more assured as it grows, bursts with power and fury in its prime, then returns to slow, meandering quietness towards the end, eventually giving itself to nothing, recycled into its constituent parts.’ When I read this I stopped, looked up and thought: ‘This fire and river comparison is a wonderful metaphor for life in general.’ I then read on and my thought was confirmed by Kit’s narration: ‘It is hardly uncommon: something going from near helpless small beginnings, through childhood and youth to vigourous adulthood then decrepitude, and an end.’

This made me think of my own life: how I grew up in Ireland and how I have spent 20 years of my energy filled youth abroad, and how now, as I approach my 40th birthday I have returned to Ireland. It makes me think of how life is cyclical and how even in moments of doubt about my life in Dublin, that in fact, this really is the perfect place for me to be right now. Having just finished reading ‘The Quarry’ I feel inspired by it and happy. Iain Banks was a fascinating man and was hugely prolific: He published 27 novels before he died of cancer at age 59 in June 2013. I look forward to reading his book of poems that will be published in 2015. Banks said before he died: ‘The poems are part of the desperate urge to get things that were supposed to be long term projects out of the way. I am going to see if I can get a book of poetry published before I kick the bucket. I have got about 50 I am proud of.’ It makes perfect sense to me that someone who is dying would try and condense the rest of their work into poetry, for it is the language of the heart and soul and when faced with death you have to find ways to get to that grain of truth faster than in a novel. I have another Iain Banks novel sitting on my bookshelf. I think I will start reading it now on this blustery Sunday October afternoon.

Exploring the Wicklow Way

12 Oct

south wicklow hills

by Rhea H. Boyden

A couple weeks ago I was invited down to Aughrim, County Wicklow for the weekend by some old friends of my parents. Our plan was to go for a Saturday afternoon hike along a small section of the Wicklow Way in South Wicklow where the rolling hills meet the fertile lands of County Wexford. When I finished work on Friday afternoon I walked steadily, hopping over puddles, in the pouring rain to Tara Street Station in Dublin. My umbrella was destroyed by the time I made it to the station. I boarded the train to Greystones, which is a charming town about 27 kilometres south of Dublin on the coast. On a clear day you can enjoy beautiful views of the Irish Sea. The view I saw from the train was this:

Rain from train.

My host met my train and we drove to his beautiful home where his wife greeted us at the door. They had prepared a delicious meal of Wicklow lamb stewed with peas and carrots served with colcannon which is a traditonal Irish dish of potatoes mashed with either scallions, cabbage and other herbs. They had mashed it with fresh kale from the tunnel in their garden which not only housed kale but an impressive grapevine. We munched on their delicious home grown grapes before dinner.

After dinner we sat in their lovely dining room listening to the pouring rain on the skylights. ‘We may just go for a short walk tomorow if the rain continues like this.’ my host said. I just smiled. I know what the weather is like in Ireland. You don’t let it upset you or ruin your plans. I slept deeply in the lovely guest room listening to the sound of the pouring rain. 

Wicklow way

The next morning when we awoke there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. I joyfully jumped out of bed and ran into the kitchen where my hosts were making coffee. We were all in great moods to see how the weather had suddenly decided to cooperate. ‘We better get going soon.’ they said. ‘This fine weather may only last a few hours.’ After breakfast we took a short walk around the fishing lake of Aughrim village and then we and their dog got into the car and drove to the foot of Ballycumber hill.

fishing lake

The hike was about 5 miles round trip and it was a stunning stretch of green road between Iron Bridge and Tinahealy, Wicklow. After helping the dog over a stile we soon approached an ancient Hawthorne tree which was in the middle of an ancient ringfort. Here we broke for a drink of water from our flask as a few clouds gathered, rendering the surrounding landscape splendidly dappled in sun and shadow. My host reminded me that the Irish word ‘Rath’ means ringfort and there are many towns in Ireland beginning with this prefix: Rathdrum, Rathmore, Rathmines, etc. Ringforts are circular fortified settlements, most of which were built during the early Middle Ages. The one we found ourselves standing in had very likely been a farm enclosure built by the well to do of early medieval Ireland. In Ireland over 40,000 sites have been identified as ringforts.

Green wayHawthorn

After quenching our thirst we continued to the top of Ballycumber hill. At the summit there was a cairn (a pile of rocks) which my host told me was the burial site of the ashes of the elders of the tribe. This made me smile. I didn’t ask which tribe, but I let my imagination run wild. These hills are magical and remind me of fairy tales and my host and guide reminded me of Gandalf in his hiking hat. We didn’t stay long at the summit as the chilly wind prevented it, but we retraced our steps back down the mountain and then drove back to their lovely house to enjoy another exquisite home cooked meal of chili con carne. After a hot bath I fell into another deep sleep in the guest room. 

 Summit CairnGandalf

On Sunday morning my hosts made potato cakes from the leftover colcannon served with fresh eggs from the local farm before driving me back into Dublin. I found it hard to leave the beautiful Wicklow countryside which is quite different from West Cork where I grew up. I am delighted that they have invited me to return again soon to go for another hike. And while I may have my moments of doubt when lying alone in my bed in Dublin, listening to the rain and wondering how my career will run and if I will be successful in this city and sometimes missing my lovely flat in Berlin, it is the wonderful excursions to see old family friends in the countryside that lift my spirits and renew my faith in the fact that I have made the right decision giving everything up in Berlin and moving back to Ireland.