Book review: Generation

WRITE what you know about is the mantra for (especially) first- time novelists, but if you know nothing about the author, then how can you match what you read with what you know?

Paula McGrath

JM Originals/ John Murray, €15.50

Of course, real life autobiographical elements filter down and into subsequent works, but unless you’re reasonably familiar with the author’s life story it remains a guessing game. 

Is what you’re reading a loosely assembled sequence of factionalised real-life occurrences, or is it complete fiction?

Paula McGrath knows about such things. She studied English Language and Literature at Trinity College Dublin, and followed that with an MA in Women’s Studies and a thesis on the life and work of Edna O’Brien.

She has also taught undergraduate Creative Writing at University College Dublin, so it’s fairly clear she has the academic nous to put her money where her mouth is, so to speak. 

McGrath is not a debut novelist, either; in the early 2000s she had two novels published (both of which she has said were “terrible”). A third novel, Peter Peter, was published in 2010.

By none-scientific reckoning, then, Generation is McGrath’s fourth novel, and it’s a tricky little item that weaves stories to and fro across 80 years.

It’s a tricky book because it’s a little bit like reaching for a small bird in a prickly hedgerow without protective gloves — you can see the bird move this way and that, and you’d like to reach in, gently take a hold of it, remove it from danger and set it free, but you just can’t grasp it.

In other words, there are numerous moments of beautiful prose (among many examples, we particularly description of a glass of pinot gris as “astringent”), but there are also too many minutes of aimless, superficially plotless writing.

The core connective story is about recently divorced 30-something Aine, who drifts from Ireland to America with her young daughter, Daisy. She hooks up with a dishevelled, organic farmer, Joe, on his property outside Chicago, begins an initially compulsive sexual relationship with him, but soon discovers that the former (and disgraced) trainee teacher has a secret he’d rather not share with anyone, least of all the mother of a six-year-old girl.

Other story strands interweave and interconnect, but none have as strong a grip as that of Aine’s, which anchors the novel in a realistic, compelling and often thriller-like manner. 

Indeed, it makes you wish McGrath had developed this specific strand further, while cutting out at least two of the extraneous ones.

There is also trouble afoot with some narrative threads in that they stretch credibility as much as patience. Without giving anything away, let’s just say that for an adult Daisy (who, by the year 2027, has changed her name to Bellis, a derivation of the Latin plant name ‘bellis perennis’ — “cute for a baby, a toddler, a little girl… but downright irresponsible to inflict it on someone who would someday become a full grown woman…”) to hook up with a tenuously connected character we first meet in the year 2010, is at best amazingly coincidental, at worst simply unbelievable.

And yet you have to applaud McGrath’s ambition in valiantly attempting to stretch the parameters of the episodic novel in the way she does. 

Filtered throughout are autobiographical hints and teases, but above it all is an original voice that has yet to find its ideal tone.


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