Hello and welcome to this week’s Salon. I hope everyone is having a nice weekend. Our weather is sunny and mild for a change, and it’s been a pretty good week overall. I finished two books: Carry Me Down, by M. J. Hyland (my review), and A Long Long Way, by Sebastian Barry (my review), both of which were shortlisted for the Booker Prize several years back. I’m also working on two knitting projects (two pairs of socks, one for me and another for my husband). Both designs are from the knitting books I wrote about last week, and they’re both interesting but not too difficult, so I’m making good progress.
Yesterday I sat down to tackle my next read, Molly Keane’s The Rising Tide, and found a very pleasant surprise. When I assembled my August book stack, I had no idea it contained one of those satisfying serendipitous reading experiences. Here I’d just finished A Long Long Way, which described the experience of working-class Irish soldiers in World War I, and the political upheaval surrounding Irish Home Rule. Of course I knew Molly Keane was Irish, but while The Rising Tide covers a similar time period, it’s focused on a completely different slice of society. As Polly Devlin wrote in her 1983 introduction to my Virago Modern Classics edition:
She writes of narrow horizons, elitist occupations, the preoccupations of a moneyed, hunting, curiously dislocated class of people, floating as it were over the political, angry geographical reality that was Ireland. In The Rising Tide there is no mention of political turmoil though at the time in which it is set the issue of Home Rule was tearing the country apart. In this disregard for the outside world she is akin to Jane Austen; in concentrating on the two inches of ivory of one Edwardian family, in her feeling for the minutiae of human behaviour, she gives an unforgettable picture of a vanished world, the world Home Rule was threatening. These people are sustained by an absolute sense of their own superiority, by a certainty about the appropriate social response to every crisis, including tragedy. It is a book about, among other things, heartlessness. (p. vi-vii)
I’m about 1/3 of the way into the story now, and this passage has really shaped my reading experience. The Rising Tide is the story of the French-McGrath family during the Edwardian period (roughly 1900-1919), and reading Keane’s prose you’d never know there was anything to life beyond houses, hunting, and fine dining. I can’t help but think of young Willie Dunne from A Long Long Way, whose father was Dublin’s chief of police and therefore deeply involved in the change sweeping over Ireland. In some ways, Willie’s family would have been ready for things to come, but the French-McGrath’s fortunes will undoubtedly change as the book moves on through the years.
Yes, I know these specific characters are all works of fiction, and yet they represent types of people who were very much alive during that period. I’m enjoying the comparison and contrast of these two works and am grateful for the happenstance that led to this back-to-back reading!
Have you ever had a serendipitous reading experience? Tell me about it!