Anna Burns’s first novel is set in Belfast during the Troubles, each chapter chronicling the events of a grim year or era — for example, “The Pragmatic Use of Arms, 1973.” The war is seen through the eyes of a child, Amelia, who knows within herself that her family and all society around her is mad and rotten. The author’s prose is engaging and darkly descriptive, in one set piece describing the arrival in Belfast of Jamesy Tone, whose relatives live in the Ardoyne — but Jamesy has shown up in the uniform of a British soldier. Yet there is a feeling of deja vu when picking up this novel — surely not another Irish novel about senseless violence, incest, rape and hopelessness? Norton. 359 pp. $13.95.
THE EDUCATION OF MRS. BEMIS
The twist in this tale is the discovery of Brendan Hurley’s bloated body floating in Massachusetts Bay. A beaten-down drunk in his late 50s, Hurley is the last person anyone would associate with ailing Boston socialite Madeline Bemis, but Bemis, who is convalescing in the care of Dr. Alice Matthews, confesses that she knew Hurley, but will say no more. Matthews, a psychiatrist, determines to find the truth, and the novel becomes an enigmatic journey into the mysterious world of Mrs. Bemis. Sedgewick drew on his own experience of depression, and has been praised for “suspending his masculinity” in order to create two complex female characters. HarperCollins. 400 pp. $24.95.
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STEPPING STONES: THE ARTS
IN ULSTER, 1971-2001
Edited by Mark Carruthers
and Stephen Douds
Creating art during the 30 years of the Troubles in Northern Ireland were some of the provinces most influential artists, writers and musicians. Distinguished commentators such as Ophelia Byrne and Frank Ormsby take an aspect of this 30-year period and discuss what was achieved. This is a forward-looking account too, asking where improvements might be made in the funding and production of uniquely Northern Irish arts. A good scattering of interesting photographs enliven what is otherwise a somewhat turgid tome.
Blackstaff Press. 286 pp. $39.95.
The most surprising thing about this album was the amount of money spent by the publicist on a sumptious 3-feet-by-2-feet press kit. Still, with catchy lyrics like, “It hasn’t been easy, you do the math, what’s me, minus my better half?” “Go West” is an easy listen for those tuned into country and western with a dash of Irish. The title track is a heartfelt musing on a grandfather advising his grandson to leave Ireland for America, never to return.
Red Tail Records. www.cbonline.net.