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Jill MacLean is the author of today’s guest blog post, and I’m delighted to introduce her. She’s chosen to write about three books she admires and would like to recommend: Small Things Like These, by Claire Keegan, and Summerwater and Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland, both by Sarah Moss. This short essay is part of an informal series in which I ask friends to write about what they’ve read recently, and/or books they return to again and again. The first post in the series was by Naomi MacKinnon, who wrote about “Reading Close to Home.”

Jill is an award-winning author who has published five contemporary novels for middle-graders and young adults. Nix Minus One, a YA novel that won the Ann Connor Brimer Award for Children’s Literature, is a particular favourite of mine—a brilliant and heartbreaking book. Written in free verse, the novel explores the complex relationship between quiet fifteen-year-old Nix and his older sister Roxy as her life spirals out of control.

Jill is an avid gardener and canoeist and she lives in Nova Scotia near her family. After a period of writing for younger readers, she says that “to avoid the risk of falling into a literary rut,” she had adult readers in mind when she started to explore her “longtime fascination with the medieval period.” She was born in Berkshire, England, the setting for her new novel, The Arrows of Mercy, which has just been published, and is available from Bookmark Halifax (and from other online sources, including Barnes & Noble and Bookshop.org). She writes that revisiting Berkshire—“in reality in the 21st Century and in imagination in the 14th—has given her “much pleasure.”

I’m excited about the opportunity to return to the medieval period by reading The Arrows of Mercy. (Some of you may know that before I started writing about Jane Austen, I wrote an MA thesis on Middle English marriage poetry.)

Anne Simpson, winner of the 2021 Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award for her novel Speechless, calls The Arrows of Mercy “richly imagined and compellingly realized,” and says that the novel “draws the reader into a story of the past that is imbued with the urgency and immediacy of our own time.”

If you’d like to hear more about The Arrows of Mercy, you can sign up for Jill’s mailing list. The Halifax launch is on Sunday, April 16th, from 4-5:30pm at the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia (1113 Marginal Road, Halifax, NS). 

Please join me in welcoming Jill!

One of my criteria when I read is whether the book inspires me to become a better writer by sharpening my technical abilities and my imagination. There is a cost to this mindset. Because my inner editor is so active, I’m halted by the perfection of a sentence, by a surprise in the narrative, by a conclusion open enough to match our own open lives but satisfying in terms of all that has gone before. I am, to use John Gardner’s phrase, pulled out of the fictional dream.

I therefore crave stories that immerse me and sweep me along, silencing that nagging editorial voice. Claire Keegan’s novel, Small Things Like These, which was shortlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize, is one of those stories. The novel itself is short, 114 pages. I’ve read it twice. I wish I could write with such economy and truth, that I could mingle so wisely what is said and what is not said. It is a quiet book, without a hint of melodrama, yet it takes on the enormous subject of the Magdalene laundries in Ireland, the last of which did not close until 1996. These institutions were responsible for countless deaths and for the ruination of thousands of “fallen” women’s lives—all at the linked hands of Catholic Church and Irish State. I cannot help thinking of our residential schools.

The protagonist, Bill Furlong, is himself illegitimate, he and his mother saved from the local convent’s laundry by a kindly, non-judgmental Protestant woman. He is now a man nearing forty, a coal and timber merchant in this small Irish town on the banks of a river “the colour of stout”: a town that has fallen on hard times, for these are the Thatcher years. He, his wife and five daughters attend the Catholic Church and his girls are all doing well at the Catholic school. On the other side of that school’s wall is the convent, its walls topped with broken glass, its doors padlocked, its windows metal-barred and blackened.

From the first paragraph I am in the hands of a wordsmith with an acute eye for detail. I am snagged by rosary, Angelus bell, Moses basket: religion still has power in this town, as do drunkenness, bullying, gossip, unemployment and poverty. A schoolboy drinks milk from a cat’s dish behind the priest’s house, another boy scavenges for sticks for the fire, and Furlong knows how easy it would be to lose everything, all too aware that he and his wife, although working from dawn to bedtime, are not getting ahead, and perhaps never will. A masterly paragraph about his earliest memories culminates in the two-toned, tiled floor like “a draughts board whose pieces either jumped over others or were taken.” What better metaphor for a society subjected to unleashed capitalism?

And what, he wonders, is it all for?

Tension gathers as December darkness drapes the town, a darkness unleavened by the lighting of the manger scene with its Virgin Mother. Virgin. The word resonates. Scenes are vividly evoked, like the making and baking of the Furlong family’s Christmas cake, poked with a knitting needle to see if it is done; the loan of a kettle to melt the frozen padlock on Furlong’s yard on a bitter morning when he feels “the strain of being alive”; the ever-watchful, often spiteful congregation shuffling on their benches as the purple-robed priest swings up the aisle; ill-nourished convent girls on their knees on the chapel floor polishing “their hearts out,” looking “scalded” when they catch sight of the coal merchant watching them from the shadows.

Furlong is a reflective man who has little time to reflect, yet whose insights constantly nudge him. “Was it possible to carry on through all the years, the decades, through an entire life, without once being brave enough to go against what was there?” And therein lies the crux of this novel, the conflict between “the ordinary part of him” that needs to stay on the good side of people and look after his beloved daughters, and his deeply held, contrary and powerful need to do right. Inadvertently at first, then purposely, he breaches the convent’s walls and is brought face to face with himself—as man, as husband and father, as Christian.

Do we have a duty towards those of our neighbours who have drawn the short straw? Do we inure ourselves to their fate or do we act? Do we, like Furlong, ponder small things like these?

Sarah Moss is a British writer I came across when her novel Summerwater was chosen by my book club. At the end of a ten-mile single-track road in Scotland is a group of rented cabins, where twelve families on summer holidays are trapped by horrendous rains. The twelve main sections in the novel, each told from a different point of view, are subtly interconnected. The atmosphere is one of foreboding—and having read Ghost Wall and The Fell, I can attest that Moss does foreboding in spades. Characters spring from the pages, revealing themselves from the inside out; the stress points of relationships emerge; surveillance through the cabins’ windows progresses from curious to judgmental, from hostile to enraged. How does Moss resolve the tension she has created? To some extent—discussion was lively at book club!—you will have to decide that for yourself.

I’ve also read Moss’s memoir, Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland, about the year she and her family spent in Reykjavik while she was teaching 19th century British literature at the National University. They arrive in 2009, just after the financial collapse. She feels like a foreigner. She is terrified of the way Icelanders drive their massive SUVs. She is slow to make friends. But gradually she delves below the surface of a country encrusted in lava, its inhabitants supposedly non-hierarchical, poverty-free and crime-free, a country of elves and knitting, of eruptions and boiling mud and fierce storms at sea. A country with a revisionist history, a country that, despite its swaths of emptiness, has its share of corruption, complications and contradictions. Sarah Moss has her own contradictions: a critically acclaimed author who believes herself inadequate to join a local writing group; a protective mother who has to adjust to Icelandic parents’ more casual—frighteningly casual—attitudes; a highly intelligent woman who feels stupid faced with (possibly) xenophobic bureaucrats. Yet she does delve, and effectively so. I admire her curiosity and, yes, her intelligence, her balanced judgements (the exception: Icelandic drivers), her courage in seeking out difficult conversations, and her lively sense of humour.

Her novel Night Waking, according to a friend of mine who has read both books, has some interesting parallels to that year in Iceland. I can’t wait to read it.