Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Book Review #16: Carolan’s Farewell by Charles Foran

(A delightful novel set in old Ireland.)

Set in 18th century Ireland, this delightful novel tells of the final days of blind Terence Carolan, legendary traveling bard and harpist. Going from manor to village to manor accompanied by Owen Connor, his guide and manservant, Carolan composes and sings for their room and board. Divided into two main sections (‘Blind’ and ‘Freckled’), the book first tells the story of Carolan’s return from Station Island where he underwent a weeklong penitential purging that nearly killed him. He and Owen ride their horses, Geminiani and Gulliver, characters in their own right, into the tiny village of Kesh where the locals will be honoured and stunned by this famous visitor, and where a beautiful child is dying of diphtheria.

The depictions of Irish poverty of the day are palpable but, as befits a historical novel set in Ireland, the dialogue is everything. Conversations take up a good two-thirds of the text and they are a marvel of word play and wit. (“Did I fall asleep?” he asks. “Both fell and slept,” Owen answers.) There is also much of music in this work, both in the language and the story. For Carolan, a melody “ought to sound effortless, or perhaps inevitable, like birdcall at sunrise.” The second half of the novel continues the story from Owen’s point of view, while Carolan lies dying in the manor of his patroness. Owen is loyal to a fault and itching to break free of the constraints of his lower-class position. He is also a biblioklept who cannot help stealing books from manor libraries, an activity that brings a sheriff onto the scene. The denouement of the story, Carolan’s final farewell, is extremely touching and well wrought. A fine work.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Book Review #15: Available Light by Herménégilde Chiasson

(Delightful essays from one of Canada's better known Acadian writer.)

These short intelligent essays, many less than three pages, reveal an author with a sense of playful erudition. Addressing themes that touch on the fading Acadian way of life, art and art history, as well as literature and creativity, Chiasson writes with the pastels and watercolors of a poet.

Who could resist an essay that opens with lines like these (from ‘Pray for Him’): “Paris wrapped us in its silken cocoon and its mystery. Escape, novelty, discovery – in short, adventure – was our only driving force, although we did have a car.” At the same time, Chiasson can write from a deep revelatory sense of melancholy: “The more we live the more we see, and we await the fateful moment when our eyes will be opened forever.” (‘A Photographer at the Louvre’) The collection is filled with thoughtful, beautiful lines that echo long after they have been read.

These are not deep philosophical essays (cf. George Steiner) nor political/social commentary (cf. Mordecai Richler or Salman Rushdie), but more in the mode of an Eduardo Galleano – poetic, concise, insightful. Chiasson visits a number of places, most notably, his childhood in Acadian New Brunswick, Montreal, Paris. He also touches on the lives and work of numerous writers and artists: Rimbaud, Kerouac, Picasso, Giotto, Cendrars, Duchamp and others. His thoughts on such things as memory, photography and children’s crayons are perceptive, constantly entertaining and thoroughly illuminating.