By Yaa Gyasi
pp. 262, 16.51
Yaa Gyasi has outdone herself once again with the publication of her second novel: Transcendent Kingdom. A story about one of capitalism’s biggest illusions ‘The American Dream’. As a child, Gifty would beg for her parents to tell her the story of how they got to Alabama from Ghana. Gyasi conveys a story about what it’s like to have a complicated relationship with one’s home country when you are a child of an immigrant, the odd feeling of not fitting in anywhere because you are not ‘American enough’ in one context and ‘too American’ in another.
Gifty’s parents don’t have an easy time settling in, her mother is constantly working, while her father finds it difficult to hold down a steady job. Nana, her older brother was the catalyst for their move. Her parents sacrificed everything for their eldest son to live in America and have more than they may have had in Ghana. Although her father never settled in, he became the homemaker and Gifty fondly remembers the times he would pick her up from school and feed her dinner.
Many years on, Gifty is now living in San Francisco, a Neuroscience PhD student desperately trying to understand the opioid addiction that destroyed Nana’s life. When her mother comes for a prolonged stay, it becomes obvious how poor her mental health is as she spends all her time in bed sleeping. While Gifty is testing her mice in the Stanford University lab, she hopes her mother will awaken from her sadness.
Gifty and her mother become to understand one another during this time and learn how they can rebuild their futures with the rubble of their pasts. The realities of immigrant life in America paired with the fact that they are one of the only black families in their community speaks to an experience everyone needs to read. This novel is vitally important and talks about many issues in an approachable and empathetic way.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennet (2020)
Publisher: Riverhead Books
“You can escape a town, but you cannot escape blood. Somehow, the Vignes twins believed themselves capable of both.”
Brit Bennet’s second novel The Vanishing Half follows the lives of two estranged twins, Desiree and Stella. The twins grew up in a predominately black community in the small southern town, Mallard. After a turbulent childhood, the twins decide to run away together at the age of sixteen in search of a new future. Despite being identical twins, the two girls separate and lead completely disparate lives; one has a daughter and moves back to Mallard to care for her mother, the other runs away again, passing for white and hiding her identity from all those she meets, including her new family.
Bennet’s narrative skill is exemplary through the novel’s exploration of multiple generations and perspectives as she weaves together the story of the Vignes twins through their childhood and their life in California. Interestingly, this novel extends to include the narratives of the twins children, as we are shown the impact of their mother’s decisions on their daughters' lives and identities. Starting in the 1950’s, this novel follows the twins until the 1990’s, exploring their experience of identity, family, and race throughout the changing times in America. The perspective of the twin’s daughters heightens the development of this novel through the deeply disparate lives the cousins live, reflective of the effect of their mothers’ decisions and exploring the influence of family, class, and race. Bennet combines tragedy, romance, and humour amongst the complex issues of racial identity, ‘passing’, LGBT identity, and domestic violence.
This novel packs in a multitude of interesting characters and its constantly developing plot makes it the perfect page-turner for your summer reading list. HBO has purchased the rights to adapt Bennet’s The Vanishing Half into a limited series which will grace our screens in the near future so there is no better time than this summer to read this novel!
Tree (Una Mannion)
Faber & Faber, January 2021
pp. 319, £12.99
I nominated Una Mannion’s debut novel, A Crooked Tree, for the ROPES Book Awards because I want everyone to fall in love with this book just as hard as I did. The story follows the Gallagher children as they try to navigate the repercussions of their mother’s rash decision to leave their twelve-year-old sister, Ellen, to walk home alone in the dark. After Ellen attempts to hitchhike come, the novel kicks into action as the children live in fear of the ‘Barbie Man’, an aptly named long-haired creep whom Ellen encountered – and escaped – on her long walk home.
The book wasn’t perfect from page one, but Mannion smooths out the rough edges and develops a piece that is a true testament to both her skill and her growth as an artist. Her descriptions of the natural landscape of Valley Forge ground the novel and are tightly intertwined with the grief of our protagonist, Libby, for her late Irish father and with her understanding of the world. Equally strong is her transportive evocation of 1980s America, skilfully characterised by its disintegrating family units, blurred (but lingering) class lines, and a crumbling trust in authority.
Mannion’s talent grows as Libby matures and the momentum that she builds over the course of the novel carries you like a riptide to the final page. A Crooked Tree is not only a considered study in grief, childhood and American society but in Mannion herself as a writer, whose budding skill blossoms over the course of one fateful and dramatic summer.
Daisy Jones and The Six - Taylor Jones Reid
Publisher: Hutchinson London
‘We love broken, beautiful people. And it doesn’t get much more obviously broken and more classically beautiful than Daisy Jones’.
Told through a series of interview transcripts, the novel follows the rise and fall of a fictitious Fleetwood Mac-esque seventies rock group, The Six, and their captivating lead singer, Daisy. Think Stevie Nicks mixed with Janis Joplin mixed with Penny Lane from the movie Almost Famous, and you’ve got Daisy Jones.
The story kicks off with Daisy and those close to her recall her discovery by those with the power to make impressionable young women's dreams come true, as a groupie simply too bewitching to not become a star. Simultaneously, the other band members regale the interviewer/documentary maker with their tales of Billy and Graham Dunne’s humble beginnings as a wedding band, and their rise to fame as The Six. When these two rising stars' stories cross paths, Daisy is beginning her way down a path of destruction in an attempt to escape from her exploitation as a woman in a male-dominated world, while the Six are trying to make their musical return after Billy’s stint in rehab. Separately, these characters are unfortunate victims of the industry, but together, Daisy Jones and the Six become a force to be reckoned with.
With no fixed narrator, the plot is pieced together through recollections and musings by band members and peripheral characters throughout, making it feel as though the story is one of a shared history, each character offering their own memories and anecdotes as they recount their glory days. Daisy Jones follows the highs and lows of the infamous Rock and Roll scene, from the exploitation of impressionable young talents to the poisonous drug culture of the industry, as Taylor Jenkins Reid thrusts her readers into the glitzy, gritty glam of such an iconic time in music history, making it a perfect summer read.
Faber & Faber 2018
The Milkman Cometh
Forget everything you thought you knew about life in the North during the Troubles. Anna Burns’s novel transports the reader there, not only in terms of time and place, but of head and heart. Milkman is narrated by an 18-year-old who attracts local attention for two reasons: she reads while she walks and THE milkman fancies her. In any other setting neither of these two details would seem notable but in this unnamed town, in 1970s Northern Ireland, they are deadly.
In the tradition of Leopold Bloom, the story follows our narrator’s interior monologue as she walks through the micro-universe of her neighbourhood. Welcome to the mental landscape of no paragraphs. Or chapters. You’ll be relieved to hear there are full stops and, by God, you will cherish them. The intensity of the writing is cut with wry humour and a casual tone that encourages keeping up with, or rather within, the narrator’s physical and mental wanderings. The interior monologue of Burns’s protagonist is so absorbing that interruptions from other characters creep up like an unexpected tap on the shoulder.
By populating her novel with nameless characters, Burns presents a world where identity, even a name itself, is a liability. Instead, characters are referred to by their roles within the community, or in relation to the narrator: maybe-boyfriend, eldest sister, tablets girl. The result communicates the setting with photographic realism: life in a close-knit community stitched together by silence, acquiescence and fear. The mind-set of people forced to live under the constant shadow of terrorism is revealed with a nuance that demonstrates the author’s keen insight.
Anna Burns’s unforgettable novel, though firmly structured within its historical setting, transcends time. It is a story of being a young woman in a world controlled by men. It is a story of how people survive violence and oppression. It is the story of now.
Alex Stern is not your typical Yale university candidate, but it turns out that Yale may not be your typical university. Mystery and death have followed Alex all her life and when she is offered a full ride to an ivy league university from her hospital bed the questions are only beginning. What do they see in her? What can she see that they cannot?
After finishing up classes for the summer the last thing we might want to do is read a book that brings us straight back into the all too familiar college setting but Ninth House is not a typical college-based narrative. This tale has all the best elements of Bardugo’s fantasy worlds, but this time we’re not in the hive of Ketterdam we are in the underbelly of one of the world’s most prestigious universities. The mystery is shrouded in power, dark magic and the allusion of privilege that swims in the murky waters of Yale’s secret societies. Who doesn’t love a good séance, especially when Leigh Bardugo is at the reins? She blends the genres of fantasy and murder mystery to create an atmosphere pricked with intensity and suspense.
If you are going to read this novel, read it for the magic system. Some books have maps, some have elaborate family trees but this one has a table cataloguing the different types of magic practised by each Yale house. Yet another opportunity to assign ourselves to fictional groups. I’d be inclined towards St Elmo’s, I tend to be partial to elemental magic myself. Storm calling? Yes, please. If you enjoy dark academia, ghost, revenge and triumphs of a survivor then this book is for you.
Dive into the sinister ways of Yale’s occult activities and follow the dark and compelling pull of this intelligent and cunning narrative!!
Content warning: Sexual assault, date rape, self-harm and mental anguish.
Tom’s Pick: Drive Your Plough Over The Bones Of The Dead
Publisher: Fitzcarraldo edtions 2019
Is a book by Nobel Prize winning author Olga Tokarczuk. Set in a small village in the country side of Poland, the story revolves around a bizarre series of murders, committed over a single winter. Janina Duszejko, the books hero, is an animal loving former engineer, whose uppermost passions in life are William Blake and astrology. Against an environment of hostility and indifference, Janina and a group of gauche accomplices try and track down the culprit.
It is told in a manner that is cerebral and quirky, with a gripping plot accompanied at every turn by the narrator’s battery of insights. Tokarczuk was awarded the Nobel Prize for her “encyclopaedic passion” and this book is very much a polymaths romp. The title itself is derived from a line of William Blake’s poetry:
‘In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.
Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead.’
The book is very readable with unusual colours and accents. As someone who loves oddities and unfashionable locations it struck a chord.
The lead character, despite her eccentricates, is very intelligent and it is fascinating to live inside her head for the duration of the story. There are insights into Polish society, which feels not unlike the atmosphere of Nikolai Gogol’s Russia, corrupt, loutish and coming apart at the seams.
Introverts will feel nourished by the stories internal focus, but this is no wallflowers manifesto. A gripping plot shows a writer as skilled within her craft as she is engaged the libraries of the world. It is a who-dunnit with elbow patches. Once you’ve moved through to the end of the book, you’ll feel acclimatised to her style and yearn for more. Her newest book The Book Of Jacob has very recently been translated into English and is considered her Magnum Opus.
Aoibheann’s pick: The Chiffon Trenches
André Leon Talley
Publisher: Harper Collins, 2020
André Leon Talley’s memoir, The Chiffon Trenches, invites the reader into the life of one of the biggest players in fashion. The former editor-at-large of US Vogue dishes on various scandals, including his fierce friendships and notable enemies. The once righthand man of Anna Wintour finally bares all.
Raised in the segregated south by his grandmother and great-grandmother, there is a sense of needing a mother figure to fill the gap left by his own. There are heartbreaking hints to a craving to please various mother figures in Talley’s life whilst simultaneously being afraid to disappoint them.
Talley gives readers a keen sense of his personality from the offset, explaining how his favourite thing to do as a child was to pore over the glossy pages of Vogue in his local library. An ever-present force in his life, Vogue instilled a love of all things French which no doubt assisted him in deciding on his original life plan to become a French teacher at a private school. However, even while studying at Brown University, Talley was a “fashion addict, dramatic in attire and appearance, even then.” The thread of Vogue is sewn so explicitly throughout his life that it seems destined for him to have become one of the most influential men in fashion through most of the 1970’s to 2000’s.
The Chiffon Trenches provides the readers with insights into Talley’s dealings with other fashion icons such as Karl Lagerfield and Diana von Furstenberg as well as his personal opinions on various fashion houses. This memoir is a class act in name-dropping. Combining this with his conversational writing style, the reader is encouraged to fully immerse themselves in the world of fashion. He possesses an ease of writing that encourages even the most fashion illiterate of readers into his world. (Also, the mastery to which he casually inserts a catty comment is an art form in itself.)
A perfectly juicy read for lounging in the sun or curled up by the fire. If you’ve ever felt the desire to explore what goes on behind the glossy pages of your favourite fashion magazines this book is a must read.
Before I crack on with the list, I think it’s important to note that it is lashing rain outside. Five minutes earlier it was glorious. The light was shining from the buttercups in my garden (a sign of a good summer ahead) and it was the perfect weather to stop and think about a summer reads listicle. Now, the rain has transformed my garden into a swamp. Irish weather, forever the realist.
In no particular order,
1. The Switch by Beth O’Leary – Wouldn’t you love if your lecturer pulled you aside after a less than ideal presentation and said: ‘you know what, you look stressed, overwhelmed and on the brink of a nervous breakdown take few months off and sort yourself out’. Then you and your grandmother parent-trap the shit out of life. Sounds good right? That’s sort of the essence of this urban to rural life swap, but most importantly who wouldn’t want to read about an 80-year-old woman on the hunt for love in London.
2. My Pear-Shaped Life by Carmel Harrington- We may not be jetting off to sunny locals this summer but the notion of the bikini body still lives despite our best efforts. Although it may soon be eclipsed by the slightly more ambiguous ‘hot girl summer’, whatever the fuck that means. This book is a refreshing acknowledgement of personal shame that tells the story of what it’s like having your head and heart playing against you. Harrington’s prose hits you where you live.
3. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett- This book always calls out to me at this time of year. It’s my preferable weapon against the gloominess that tends to linger after literature exams. Fire with fire and all that. It’s perfect, you have the horrible child that you’d like to strangle with her skipping rope, a mysterious garden and a creaky old house. I advise that you read it outside under a tree. Wait to see what happens.
4. Writers & Lovers by Lily King- Don’t you love it when writers write characters who are writers? This addition is for all the readers who have a strange obsession with reading books about writing. Throw two handsome fellas in there with a tough decision and BAM!!! Bet you read it in one sitting.
5. Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild- I was going to include Little Women on here (I suppose I sort of have now) and then I remembered entirely LOVING this little book. The perfect found family tale with dancing and singing and love on every page. This book always made me want to hem a skirt and change a tire all at once. At twenty-two, I’m sorry to say that I can do neither of these things never mind both, but the Fossil sisters give me hope.
6. The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd- When I was about thirteen my Mum gave me this book and said I couldn’t get any new ones until I finished this one. As you can imagine this put a damper on my YA fantasy phase. Now I read this book every year. It will make you cry, laugh and cry again. It may also help with any fear of bees (not really).
7. Get A Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert- Read it for the romance and the sass. I’ve never had any desire to go camping then I read this book and turns out I’ve been doing it wrong. While you’re at it there are two more books in this series. Read them too.
8. ANYTHING BY MAEVE BINCHY- My Mum says she suits all seasons
9. Well Met by Jen DeLuca- Being forced to participate in a SUMMER LONG renaissance fair would typically describe my own personal brand of hell. After reading this … I’d live in that corset no questions asked.
10. A Song For You by Robyn Crawford- After reading this book during the first lockdown last year I think it will always be connected to utter relaxation. Sitting outside in the sunshine, iced coffee in hand, and only working half my usual hours. This book will always remind me of that magical time in my life. Get an inside scoop into who Whitney Houston really was with this autobiography by the woman closest to her. This memoir satisfies that nosiness inside of you that craves to find out what happens behind closed doors of the rich and famous. Suffering tumultuous relationships with seemingly everyone in her life, reading this will give you a new found appreciation for Whitney Houston’s superstardom.
Graduating has always been a stressful concept. Whether you are happy to see your university on fire in the review mirror or you’re content in clinging to fond memories of badly heated lecture halls. Either way, it is a time of replacing old worries with new ones. Employment is usually the primary anxiety-causing aspect of this transition. Every year there are reasons to fear this graduation moment, after all, employment is a sensitive thing. Now, the pandemic is making everything rather difficult. The decision to move away after college and start the next chapter of our lives is deeply affected by a new conundrum, the whole working from home thing and the frustrating uncertainty about when this will no longer be part of the job description. We have been in this pandemic for over a year and we have all experienced missed opportunities, however, the altered working environments have directly affected student’s decisions to move after graduation, especially if the move would mean leaving an area of cheaper (ish) rent for … not so cheap rent. The notion of moving for work has sort of been removed as a post-graduation necessity, so students are left with a new question. Where do I want to work from home?
This is similar to the pre-pandemic desire to work from anywhere, anywhere now means any part of your sitting room because let's be honest freshly graduated students aren’t exactly in the home office stage of their lives. And getting to that stage now seems like an impossibility because we are being held hostage in the space between student and working professional. During this transition, we are meant to shed ourselves of certain aspects of student life. Like midweek drinking and shit apartments, but alas I am weighing the pros and cons of, come August, remaining in my desperately obvious student house with my painfully obvious student hating neighbour because considering all the uncertainty isn’t the devil you know better than the one disguised as a 700 per month room nowhere near a Luas?
The excitement of entering the working world armed with our marginally useful degrees and uncomfortable work attire may not be a thing of the past but the hope does reside in an uncertain future. The usual feeling of post-graduation fear is compounded by the fact that even though working from home is still the expected norm, job descriptions make it clear that the successful applicant will be able to come into the office if regulation at that time allows it. As if on day 56 of my new job I will receive an alert: ALL ASSISTANTS TO OFFICE BUILDING IMMEDIATELY. This seems unlikely in the grand schemes of things but if I want to be a successful applicant I will have to be within a reasonable distance from my cubical and that’s that.
This would be all well and good if we knew for certain that at some point we would be allowed to don our pantsuits and join the working population or if I could guarantee that I will have a job in three months. Considering that I can’t control any of these things I will remain where I am, in happy denial clinging to the identity of a student and keeping the idea of Dublin away until I find a job or a place to live. I suppose that leaves me with another question. What comes first in a pandemic economy, job or apartment?
Now that exam week is upon most of our college readers, we know that the stress can be piling on. We have laid out a couple tips and tricks that might help you keep a level head.
Find David on Twitter @DavidWalshST
David Walsh is an Irish sports journalist and chief sports writer for the British newspaper the Sunday Times. He is a four-time Irish Sportswriter of the Year and a three-time UK Sportswriter of the Year. David’s 2020 novel The Russian Affair is published by Simon & Schuster.
This year was the first installment of the ROPES creative writing school competition. We were blown away by the dozens of entries from talented Transition Year and 5th Year students across Ireland, and we are delighted to be able to give these young writers a platform. Below, you can read our interview with Fiona McShane, author of 'Cradle' and this year's winner. You can read her incredible short story on our website, or see it in print in this year's edition of ROPES, ephemeral, which you can find for sale in our shop.
By Fiona McShane
After the world ended, the only things left intact were the stories. The storyteller was called Cradle. It held no feelings toward the supposed apocalypse. It held no feelings at all. It only stood tall and shining, as the last remains of the human race struggled to emerge from the debris and their abject despair.
The Difference Between a House and a Home
by Juliet Malone
Juliet is a 4th Year Student from Malahide Community School and according to her she’s been writing since before she could walk.
Third Place Winner- Nathan Ferry with The Midnight Zone
Nathan is a fourth year student in Coláiste Éinde who enjoys reading and composing fiction.
Have you forgotten about Mother’s Day this year? Does your Mom love books? Then fear not because we have some last-minute gifts for all literature-loving Mamas out there!
Sophia Hadef is the founder of Galway-based gothic literature publishing company “Dubh Publishing” and is currently studying an MA in Journalism at NUI Galway. We chat to Sophie (virtually!) about her career path, how to stay creative during the pandemic and her books to watch for 2021!
You can follow Sophia on Instagram (@soelvyra_) on Twitter (@soelvyra) and Dubh Publishing on Twitter (@dubhpublishing)
When Home becomes a Prison – Domestic Abuse in a Pandemic
“You do not have to stay at home. You can leave. If you are ready and can safely do so, call us or call in, we are open 24/7 – 091 56 59 85.”
ROPES Book Awards: Mary-Louise's Pick
2 Jul, 2021
ROPES Book Awards: Pippa's Pick
2 Jul, 2021
ROPES Book Awards: Lorna's Pick
25 Jun, 2021
ROPES Book Awards: Eimear's Pick
25 Jun, 2021
Ropes Book Awards: Heather's Pick
18 Jun, 2021
Ropes Book Awards: Fae's Pick
18 Jun, 2021
ROPES Book Awards: Tom's Pick!
11 Jun, 2021