Ahead of ECHOES, a three-day event at Dalkey Castle & Heritage Centre (October 5-7) to celebrate the work of Maeve Binchy and other Irish writers,asks six authors about their favourite Binchy book and her influence.
“My favourite is Dublin 4, a collection of four stories set in Dublin, published in 1981. What made me pick it up was its title — I’d never read a book written about suburban Dublin before, and the characters in each story resonated with my own experiences of people living in the city. Although the themes were uncompromising, the writing was warm and affectionate, while still making astute observations about city life.
Dublin 4 — and so many of Maeve’s books — made me feel that there was a place for the kind of stories I wanted to write, too.
Ones where women were front-and-centre of their own narratives, where the author didn’t sit in judgement on their characters, but allowed them to reveal themselves to the reader. Dublin 4 was the book that gave me the confidence to write
“It’s a close call, because I’m also so fond of Central Line, her first-ever short story collection, but my favourite Maeve Binchy book is her selected ‘Irish Times’ writings, Maeve’s Times, some of which I’d read week-by-week, as it was published.
“Whether she was writing about a royal wedding (“Fergie was put off the fags long ago, when royal nuptials seemed likely”) or abortion (“what she wanted was not so much moralising as the name of a doctor”), her journalism was unfalteringly honest, compassionate, and full of common sense. It was also regularly laugh-out-loud funny.
I won the inaugural UCD Maeve Binchy Travel Award, in 2014, and had a wonderful time exploring the shipping forecast and writing about it. My first trip was to sea areas Sole, Lundy, and Fastnet, which meet just north-east of the Isles of Scilly. For company and inspiration, I brought Maeve’s Times with me!
“I can still see my friends’ bright faces, as they hand me a beautifully-wrapped gift. It’s Light a Penny Candle, by Maeve Binchy. It’s her first novel and it’s 1982. They know I’m a voracious reader. They also know I’m writing. And, just as my maternity leave starts, they know I’ll have the time for both of these passions, before the sleepless nights begin. This luxurious hardback edition is just the indulgence I need.
“As soon as my visitors leave, I dive in. This is a big story, in all senses. I’m captivated by the 600 pages of Elizabeth’s and Aisling’s intertwining lives. I barely come up for air.
“Above all else, back then, this book spoke to me of possibilities. Maeve was Irish. She’d written a compelling story of family and friendship. She’d been published. Her achievement allowed me to continue to dream.”
As a young one, out of school and wrestling with drama school, I remembered hearing on the grapevine about ‘this huge film that’s being shot down in Kilkenny…with loads of parts for women, loads!’ The film was Circle of Friends and I eagerly nabbed a copy to read before the audition
“The story only leapt off the page at me and I vividly remember the director asking me what struck me most about it, at the audition. ‘Real, true friendship is a rare gift to be cherished’, I told him. The themes of the book were as relevant back in the 1950s as they are today, but wasn’t that Maeve’s extraordinary gift?
“I didn’t get the part. I was told I was ‘too Dublin for it.’ But I still wept and laughed and cried at the book, and, indeed, the movie, too. A rich, resonant coming-of-age story, Irish-style and, more importantly, Maeve-style.”
“I inhaled Echoes as a teenager, as I did every book by Maeve Binchy, but it was only on a recent reread that I really realised how accomplished a novel it is.
All of the Binchy building blocks are there: realistic setting, nuanced and believable characters grappling with complex issues, humanity, and a sense of fair play. But Echoes also contains a touch of darkness. Maeve’s star-crossed lovers get their romantic moment alright, but then she explores what happens after the ‘happy ever after’
“The book also contains one of my favourite Binchy characters, Angela, the sardonic school teacher, who sacrifices her life for others, but is allowed a well-deserved, happy ending of her own.
“And there are elements of a gripping crime thriller, too; the closing chapters, in particular, are as compelling as any in that genre.
“Romance, thriller, social history: Echoes has it all.”
“Although I’ve read and loved many of Maeve’s blockbuster novels, I love the smaller ones, too. One of her great gifts was to write engrossing short stories about individual characters, linked by a common theme. The Lilac Bus was a superb exploration of universal characters that we all recognise.
“Many of my co-workers in the library service, like Maeve’s protagonists on The Lilac Bus, would get the bus ‘home’ on Friday, to go ‘down’ the country. Maeve’s observational skill at ferreting out small details revealed so much, like Nancy, who fretted about being early for the bus, because the other regulars would think she had no life in Dublin and was too eager to get home. Classic Maeve.
“Maeve’s greatest influence on me was her generosity of spirit and her willingness to help younger, upcoming writers. She certainly set the bar high.
“I try to do my bit to pass on the kindness she showed me.”