Book review: Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan by Ruth Gilligan

Ruth Gilligan wrote her first novel as a project in transition year. A school-based romance, it made number one in the Irish bestsellers charts, making Ruth, 18 at the time of publication, the youngest person to have achieved this.
Book review: Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan by Ruth Gilligan

I interviewed her at the time, and found her to be supremely confident, and ambitious. (Also an actress, she had a teenage part on Fair City.)

Ruth followed her debut with two, less successful books, both written by the time she had left Cambridge University, and since then, she has been honing her craft, dabbling in journalism, and taking an MFA in Creative Writing, a subject she now teaches at Birmingham University. And it’s clear the writer is keen to shrug off her early, juvenile efforts.

Indeed, her fourth novel has been described as her literary debut. So how does it stand up?

The cleverly titled Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan tells the story of Jewish immigrants in Ireland. It takes three time scales; 1901, 1958 and 2013, jumping between sections as the separate stories are narrated.

As the novel progresses, slipping between the cities of Cork, Dublin and London, we wonder if the strands of story are, in fact, linked.

Is there a connection between Ruth, the midwife who stayed in Ireland when her family left; the mute Shem; and modern day Aishling whose boyfriend wishes her to convert to Judaism?

It’s clear from the start of the stylishly-written novel, that Gilligan is interested in the way that stories define our lives.

From the moment the young Ruth arrives in Cork, disembarking because her father, Tateh, misheard the call of ‘Cork,’ for ‘New York,’ she uses tales to advance her plot. An expert spinner of stories Tateh is a playwright, intent on having his work performed on the Dublin stage.

When Lady Gregory summons him to the Gate Theatre he believes all his dreams have come true, but in a devastating scene, she turns them to dust. Ruth watches, helplessly, as her father’s optimism gradually dissolves, and ends in tragedy.

Her mother, meanwhile, doesn’t even try to settle in Ireland. All her energies are fixed on reaching Israel, The Homeland.

I enjoyed Ruth’s sections, both those early ones and the later, when she weaves stories to distract the labouring women in her care. She feels settled in Dublin, and intends on staying even when anti-Semitism emerges, as Germany and England go to war.

The second narrative — that of Shem, incarcerated in an asylum because he hasn’t spoken since his Bar Mitzvah is less compelling. Writing the story of his fellow inmate Alf, he’s a conduit, used by the author to string her stories together, but I found the premise of his life somewhat stretched my credulity.

In contrast, Aisling, the Irish journalist writing obituaries for a London newspaper brings a lightness to the novel. She loves her boyfriend, the sometimes magician,Noah; she feels more at home in the warmth of his family than in her own, slightly dislocated one, but can she give up her heritage?

Escaping London for an Irish Christmas, she secretes herself away, obsessively perusing an Irish published guide to becoming Jewish, gifted by Noah’s parents.

There is much to admire about this novel. Gilligan has produced memorable characters in Tateh, Ruth and Aishling, and some of her scene setting is masterly. The prose shimmers at times; and she has captured the reality of conversation – and how it flits around following several strands simultaneously.

It’s an illuminating story too, and is cleverly constructed.

But even as I admired the prose; even as I felt steeped in the atmosphere of the various timelines, I wasn’t always engaged.

The plot often felt forced . And the denouement, though it tied the ends together, wasn’t strong enough to convince.

Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan

Ruth Gilligan

Atlantic Books: €18.19 Kindle: €6.66

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