“Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.
Friday, August 29, 2014
Herman Koch is the author of The Dinner, the phenomenal international best-seller which was first translated into English in 2012. A novel that begins with pleasant, sophisticated adults sitting around a restaurant dinner-table, it gradually strips away the veneer of its characters’ civilised society to reveal nasty and brutish behaviour.
“Unlikeable characters,” says Herman, “are generally more interesting and more colourful. It’s the reason, I think, why we like gangster movies, or The Sopranos, for example. These people might be murderers, but they’re interesting. We can even sympathise with them in some ways. So that’s the kind of thing I like to explore. I always have some likeable people in my books,” he laughs, “but they’re usually minor characters.”
His seventh novel in total – he has also published seven collections of short stories – Summer House With Swimming Pool is Herman Koch’s follow-up to The Dinner, and has for its narrator another fascinatingly dislikeable character, Marc Schlosser. A doctor – a general practitioner – for the past 25 years, Marc has grown so bored with his patients’ complaints that he is now utterly indifferent to their pain and suffering.
“He’s doing very routine work,” says Herman, “not like what a surgeon might do. And I think the status of the doctor in general has diminished a lot in the last 150 or 200 years, and Marc is having problems with that as well, having patients who are well-known, artistic people – actors, writers – who look down on him. So he feels like somebody who is just being used, and this is where his frustration comes from. And with frustration, in the end – not with everybody, but with Marc – comes disgust.”
Compounding Marc’s disgust for his own and others’ failings is his contempt for humans who try to ignore their animal instincts.
“I was thinking that we tend, sometimes, when we have our struggles and movements, our campaigns for equal rights for everybody, we forget our biological aspect, and that even the biological aspect now is sometimes a taboo, that it is not politically correct,” says Herman. “In the end, human beings differ from animals because the animal just thinks, ‘Well, now I have to eat, now I have to procreate.’ Or they’re not even conscious that they’re procreating. We as humans are conscious of that, certainly. But maybe in the way we look at each other, in the way a man looks at a woman, it can still be an animal-like look.”
The story turns, however, not on animal instincts, but a very human sexual deviance, as Marc comes to realise that his 13-year-old daughter Julia is the focus of an adult male’s obsession.
“When I started the book, I didn’t know how the story would end,” says Herman. “But while I was writing it, Roman Polanski got arrested again, for this case from the 1970s.” In 1977, film director Roman Polanski was arrested in California for the rape of a 13-year-old girl, and subsequently pled guilty to a charge of unlawful sex with a minor. “That’s why I put this film director [the Dutch-born Hollywood director Stanley Forbes] into the novel,” says Herman, “and why his girlfriend is called Emmanuelle, like the wife of Roman Polanski. I thought I would expose all the different facets of a story about a 13-year-old girl who in the eyes of her father is still a small girl, and a 13-year-old girl who herself thinks she is already a woman. It’s to do with a father whose girl is growing up, and what he might do to try to protect her.”
As was the case with The Dinner, Summer House With Swimming Pool first offers the reader a cast of characters who appear to be sophisticated, tolerant and intelligent. Once Marc Schlosser begins scratching at the surface, however, glimpses of much cruder, illiberal and immoral characters quickly appear. It’s a snapshot, says Herman, of a far larger issue confronting Holland today.
“Lately, in Holland, with all the discussions of culture and religion, it suddenly came out that the Dutch are now voting for this right-wing, anti-foreigner party,” he continues. “The Dutch are saying, ‘Oh, we did all we could, and they’re not even grateful. So now we will tear off this mask of tolerance.’ But I think, deep inside, they were never that liberal at all.”
In some ways, Herman Koch’s journey as a writer has been the reverse of the Dutch experience. Initially intolerant of all forms of authority, he has grown comfortable with becoming a figure of influence.
“When you start as a writer, you start as a more rebellious person, more against teachers and adults, your family,” he says. “And then afterwards you become a father yourself, you have your own family, so your perspective changes a lot. You’re no longer this adolescent revolutionary,” he laughs. “You’re more trying to protect what you have. I knew I had to grow up, and as a writer use this experience of being an adult with my own family.”
A film of The Dinner has already been made in Holland, with a Hollywood version to come starring Cate Blanchett, although Herman – previously an actor and screenwriter himself – has chosen not to be involved in the adaptation. “I think it’s better that the director is completely free to tell the story,” he says.
Does he have a theory as to why The Dinner was such a tremendous international success?
“Of course I’ve asked myself that question, because you can have a success in your own country – but then, just because it’s a success in your own country, can it hold the attention of people in other countries?” He shrugs. “I don’t know. It’s a combination of things. Certainly The Dinner touched some sore spot to do with protecting children, but I also think it has to do with going against political correctness. People might say, ‘I’m not allowed to say this aloud, but I can think it at least.’ And when they read that kind of thing, it confirms that there is somebody who also thinks it – maybe the hero, maybe the writer – and that the thought isn’t forbidden. And that might also be a cathartic thing, a liberating experience.” ~ Declan Burke
Herman Koch’s Summer House With Swimming Pool is published by Atlantic Books.
This interview was first published in the Irish Examiner.
Wednesday, August 27, 2014
THE POLKA-DOT GIRL, although he shifts focus a little for SHIVER THE WHOLE NIGHT THROUGH (Hot Key Books), a crime fiction YA novel. To wit:
After months of bullying and romantic heartbreak, seventeen-year-old Aidan Flood feels just about ready to end it all. But when he wakes up one morning to find that local beauty and town sweetheart Sláine McAuley actually has, he discovers a new sense of purpose, and becomes determined to find out what happened to her. The town is happy to put it down to suicide, but then one night Aidan gets a message, scratched in ice on his bedroom window: ‘I didn’t kill myself.’ Who is contacting him? And if Sláine didn't end her own life ... who did?SHIVER THE WHOLE NIGHT THROUGH will be published in November. For all the details, clickety-click here …
Monday, August 25, 2014
After a massacre at a Bosnian prison camp, a young girl is found alone, clutching a diary, so traumatized she can’t even speak. Twenty years later, the last witness to the prison guards’ brutal crimes must hunt down those responsible to learn what happened to her family.For all the details, clickety-click here …
Twenty years ago, after the fall of Yugoslavia, the world watched in horror as tens of thousands were killed or imprisoned in work camps during an “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia. Carla Lane has little knowledge of what went on halfway around the world when she was a child. She is living a near perfect life in New York City, married and soon to have a family of her own. But when her husband is murdered by a group of Serbian war criminals, strange memories start coming back, and she discovers that she underwent extensive therapy as a girl to suppress her memories. She is given her mother’s diary, which unlocks her childhood memories and reveals that she was, along with her parents and young brother, imprisoned in a war camp outside Sarajevo.
As her memories come back, it becomes clear that she is the last witness to a brutal massacre in the prison and that her brother may still be alive. She sets out to find her brother, but first she must hunt down the war criminals responsible for destroying her life. But these killers will stop at nothing to protect their anonymity and their deadly pasts ... and are determined to silence the last witness to their crimes.
Friday, August 22, 2014
Hired to find the missing son of retired political activist Moira Doherty, Dan Starkey knows his new case is going to be challenging. Billy ‘the Bear’ Doherty isn’t an easy man to find - a criminal with a nasty drug habit, his mum is convinced he’s been murdered.For all the details, clickety-click here …
But when Moira herself is killed, her body found floating in the waters under Londonderry’s Peace Bridge, Dan finds himself in the middle of a deadly game of cat and mouse.
Already in unfamiliar territory, Starkey is quickly embroiled in the city’s porn and drug fuelled underworld, where a new generation of gangster terrorist is intent on creating mayhem their predecessors could only dream of ...
Wednesday, August 20, 2014
Joe Joyce’s ECHOLAND introduced us to Paul Duggan, an Irish army intelligence officer operating in Dublin during ‘the Emergency’ – known to the rest of the world as WWII – in 1940. ECHOBEAT (Liberties Press) is the sequel:
Christmas, 1940. France is under German control, Britain is in danger and the United States has yet to join the war. Ireland, meanwhile, has succeeded in staying neutral – so far. Reports of a British troop buildup in the North have raised fears that Ireland is facing an invasion by its neighbour. And Germany’s bombing of Dublin early in the new year suggests Berlin is trying to send a message, but the meaning is unclear. Paul Duggan and his colleagues in G2, the intelligence unit of the Irish army, have to decipher Germany’s intentions fast: any miscalculation could be fatal. One man who could answer their questions is Hermann Goertz, the chief German spy in Ireland, who has been on the run for almost a year. Finding him is imperative. Meanwhile, Duggan is also running an undercover operation spying on German fliers interned in Ireland when they’re out on parole. Planned as a routine operation, it turns out to be anything but – and changes Duggan’s life dramatically. Dublin shines through Joyce’s prose as his characters play a diplomatic chess game to keep Ireland out of the war. You won’t be able to put down this thriller until you reach its heart-wrenching finale. Echobeat is the second book in the Echoland series, which features Duggan, his Special Branch friend Peter Gifford, and a cast of political and intelligence operators in Ireland during the treacherous days of the Second World War.For all the details, clickety-click here …
Tuesday, August 19, 2014
Adrian McKinty, the Australia-based Irish crime writer who has been nominated for the 2014 Ned Kelly Awards – Australia’s crime fiction gong – for IN THE MORNING I’LL BE GONE (Serpent’s Tail). It’s the second time McKinty has been shortlisted for the Ned Kelly; he was shortlisted last year for the second in the Sean Duffy series, I HEAR THE SIRENS IN THE STREET. Quoth the judging panel:
“In his use of humour with the grim realities of Belfast in 1984, coupled with a wonderfully constructed locked room mystery, McKinty has produced something really quite extraordinary. There’s a fine line between social commentary and compelling mystery and not many writers, crime or literary, can do both.”For more, including the full list of nominees, clickety-click here …
Monday, August 18, 2014
the superb, award-winning BROKEN HARBOUR (2012), Tana French’s latest novel is THE SECRET PLACE (Hodder & Stoughton), a typically quirky police procedural set in an exclusive Dublin boarding school for girls. To wit:
The photo shows a boy who was murdered a year ago.For all the details, clickety-click here …
The caption says, ‘I KNOW WHO KILLED HIM’.
Detective Stephen Moran hasn’t seen Holly Mackey since she was a nine-year-old witness to the events of Faithful Place. Now she’s sixteen and she’s shown up outside his squad room, with a photograph and a story.
Even in her exclusive boarding school, in the graceful golden world that Stephen has always longed for, bad things happen and people have secrets. The previous year, Christopher Harper, from the neighbouring boys’ school, was found murdered on the grounds. And today, in the Secret Place - the school noticeboard where girls can pin up their secrets anonymously - Holly found the card.
Solving this case could take Stephen onto the Murder squad. But to get it solved, he will have to work with Detective Antoinette Conway - tough, prickly, an outsider, everything Stephen doesn’t want in a partner. And he will have to find a way into the strange, charged, mysterious world that Holly and her three closest friends inhabit and disentangle the truth from their knot of secrets, even as he starts to suspect that the truth might be something he doesn’t want to hear.
Friday, August 15, 2014
Casey Hill’s series featuring forensic investigator Reilly Steel when it is published in December. In the meantime, Casey Hill publishes a Reilly Steel prequel novella, CRIME SCENE. To wit:
Forty miles south of Washington, D.C. lies the small town of Quantico. Situated among lush greenery, the 547 acre property is where FBI recruits run obstacle courses, engage in firearms training and participate in mock hostage scenarios in Hogan’s Alley. It’s the world budding forensic investigator Reilly Steel was born for.For all the details, clickety-click here …
During her first semester at the Academy, a fatal accident occurs at a student party off-campus, and a fellow recruit is under suspicion. But by the behaviour of the other students and the forensic evidence at the crime scene, Reilly guesses that there is more to the story than meets the eye.
Will her instincts, and everything she’s learnt at Quantico so far help Reilly uncover the truth behind the victim’s death?
Wednesday, August 13, 2014
A simple request of Mick Murphy to find his cousin Cecil Fahey turns into a struggle of avoiding irate SAS soldiers determined to kill Cecil for his IRA activities in the ’80s. Murphy’s quest takes him into the shadowy world of the IRA in Los Angeles, New Jersey and eventually Dublin, Ireland, all the while avoiding efforts to kidnap him and trying to survive attempts on his life. In his quest to locate Cecil and find out who and why someone wants him dead, family and friends lie to Murphy. With a new identity provided by the IRA, Murphy can’t escape his long-time black bag friend Norm’s scrutiny or the MI6 agents following him, while being used to set up an ambush of SAS soldiers. When truths are lies and lies are necessary, Mick Murphy realizes nobody wins.For the first three chapters of NOBODY WINS, clickety-click here …
Tuesday, August 12, 2014
Somewhere in the city of Cork, a woman’s cry echoes through the rainy streets.For more, clickety-click here …
On a bloodstained mattress in a grimy flat, a burly man lies dead. A terrified girl kneels over his body. She is half-naked, starving, screaming. She has been trapped here for three days.
It doesn’t take DS Katie Maguire long to identify the murder victim. He is someone she has been trying to convict for years - a cruel and powerful pimp who terrorised the girls who worked for him.
It’s Katie’s job to catch the killer. But with men like this dead, the city is safer - and so are the scared young women who are trafficked into Cork. When a second pimp is horrifically murdered, Katie must decide. Should she do her job, or follow her conscience? Should she allow the killer to strike again?
Friday, August 8, 2014
McKinty is outlining the backdrop to what will be his next novel, the fourth in a series centring on Sean Duffy, a Catholic RUC officer in operating in Northern Ireland in the 1980s. Rooted in historical events such as the hunger strikes and the Brighton bombing, the books feature cameos from well known historical figures, including George Seawright, Gerry Adams and John DeLorean. Oliver North, notorious for his role in the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal, pops up in the next book.
“So [North] goes to the IRA and says, ‘Can I get some missiles?’ And they take one look at him and go, ‘Who’s this joker?’ They won’t have anything to do with him. And he goes to the UVF, and he asks them for missiles, and they go, ‘Oh yeah, of course.’”
Born and raised in Carrickfergus, Adrian McKinty left Northern Ireland to read politics and philosophy at Oxford. He has lived in the United States and Australia for most of his adult life, publishing his first novel, Orange Rhymes with Everything, in 1998. The acclaimed Dead I Well May Be (2003) was his first crime novel, and today he is regarded as one of the leading lights, along with John Connolly, Tana French and Eoin McNamee, of the current wave of Irish crime writing.
After writing three novels in a row set against the bleak, claustrophobic backdrop of 1980s Northern Ireland, however, McKinty found himself gasping for artistic breathing space. His current offering, The Sun is God, is set in the South Pacific in 1906, and is rooted in the bizarre but true story of a German cult of nudists – the Cocovores – who ate only coconuts and worshipped the sun.
“Mostly it was because I was so excited by the story,” says McKinty. “It was a murder case that took place in a German nudist religious cult – and no one has told this story? But to be honest, I was a bit fed up about reading background material about Northern Ireland in the 1980s, because you know what they’re all going to say. And it was really fun to look at another part of the world, at a different time.”
In the novel, Will Prior is a former British Army military policeman and a disillusioned veteran of the Boer War. Prior is living a dissolute life as a rubber plantation manager in German New Guinea when he is approached by Hauptmann Kessler to help investigate a suspicious death on the island of Kabakon, where the Cocovores have established their community.
“I liked that Pat Barker book, The Ghost Road, and there’s a character in that called Billy Prior. I really liked that name, but I couldn’t call him Billy, because even that was too Northern Ireland,” he laughs.
Perversely, McKinty’s radical departure in terms of setting arrives just as Northern Ireland-set crime writing is beginning to flourish. Belfast Noir, a collection of short stories which McKinty co-edited with Stuart Neville, will be published in November, and features Northern Irish crime writers Eoin McNamee, Brian McGilloway, Claire McGowan, Ruth Dudley Edwards and Gerard Brennan. Does Belfast Noir represent a coming of age for Northern Irish crime writing?
What was particularly pleasing to McKinty was the way in which non-crime fiction authors such as Lucy Caldwell and Glenn Patterson seamlessly fitted into the collection.
“I think if you grow up in a culture where the army is out on the street sighting you with rifles,” he says, “it has to have some kind of psychological impact.”
In The Sun is God, Will Prior’s previous experience of horrific violence has dulled his humanity to the point where he is nowhere as smart, noble or interested in justice as the conventional detective in a crime novel should be.
“One of the things I liked about Will Prior – and this probably won’t be popular at all – is that he doesn’t actually solve the crime,” says McKinty. “He gets it all wrong. Now, we’ve seen that kind of thing before, many times, but it’s always done for comedic effect. But I thought, what about doing it when it’s not for comedic effect – he’s just wrong. And I know readers hate that. They’ll put up with anything except for an incompetent lead. They’ll put up with drinking, racism, womanising – but if you have someone who’s not good at their job, they hate it.”
Prior’s ineffectiveness is in part due to the fact that the crime on Kabakon Island – if crime it was – remains unsolved, but it’s also a reflection of McKinty’s spiky refusal to be chained to the genre’s conventions, and contains an echo of Francis Bacon’s idea – often quoted by Eoin McNamee – that the job of all art is to deepen the mystery.
“Even today,” says McKinty, “nobody knows the truth about Kabakon Island. I’ve done a lot of research into it, and no one actually knows the answer. It probably was a murder, but no one knows for sure, or who did it, or why. You can only speculate on what happened.”
The Sun is God by Adrian McKinty is published by Serpent’s Tail.
This interview was first published in the Irish Times.
Thursday, August 7, 2014
Wednesday, August 6, 2014
DISAPPEARED (Head of Zeus) is now available on this side of the pond. To wit:
DISAPPEARED introduces Celcius Daly, a Belfast Police Inspector laden with flawed judgment and misplaced loyalties.For more information on Tyrone author Anthony Quinn, clickety-click here …
A retired Special Branch Detective succumbing to early-stage dementia disappears from his remote home in rural Northern Ireland. An ex-intelligence officer is tortured to death. But why was his obituary printed in the local paper before his death? A son seeks his father's long-lost body and vengeance against those who murdered him. A stone-cold killer stalks the outskirts of Belfast. But at whose behest is he hunting his targets? And why?
All are connected by a single strand spun out of the past... but as Inspector Celcius Daly knows, the past is never dead... it's not even past.
Tuesday, August 5, 2014
Lee Child leads the charge. Lee, who claims his Irishness under a variation on FIFA’s ‘grandparent rule’, will also have a short story in the BELFAST NOIR (Akashic Books) anthology later this year. Elsewhere, the line-up includes Sinead Crowley (CAN ANYBODY HELP ME?), Karen Perry (THE BOY THAT NEVER WAS), Liz Nugent (UNRAVELLING OLIVER) and Jane Casey (THE KILL). In addition to her appearance at the festival, Jane Casey will also host a writing workshop.
For all the details on the Mountains to Sea programme, and how to book tickets, clickety-click here …
Thursday, July 31, 2014
American author Cara Black sets her Aimée Leduc series of novels in Paris, where the effortlessly chic Aimée works as a private investigator. Murder Below Montparnasse (Soho Crime, €27.50) is her 13th outing, which opens with Aimée commissioned by Yuri, a ‘stubborn old Cossack’ Russian émigré, to protect a long-lost Modigliani. It sounds like a straightforward job, but when Aimée discovers Yuri murdered – apparently tortured to death – and the painting gone, she discovers that the art world can be a lethal place to do business. What follows is a breathless tale of double-, triple- and quadruple-crosses as the private eye finds herself at the heart of a century-old plot that incorporates not only the great painters of the avant-garde but also one Vladimir Illyich Lenin. Black sketches in the Montparnasse backdrop with considerable style, contrasting its contemporary political turmoil with its bohemian origins in the early part of the 20th century, and weaves a host of sub-plots through the main story, including one involving the heroine’s long-absent mother, who may or may not be a hired killer for the CIA. It all makes for an exhilarating read, although the sheer volume of intricately plotted twists, turns and revelations that send Aimée ricocheting through the Parisian streets and make Murder Below Montparnasse the proverbial page-turner might well frustrate a more patient reader.
This column first appeared in the Irish Times.
Wednesday, July 30, 2014
I reviewed IN THE ROSARY GARDEN a few months ago in the Irish Times, with the gist running a lot like this:
Set in Ireland in 1984, Nicola White’s IN THE ROSARY GARDEN (Cargo Publishing) centres on the discovery of a dead infant in the grounds of a convent. Given the place and particularly the time, Detective Vincent Swan has to proceed carefully as he investigates how the child was killed, and why it was left to be discovered in a convent, and matters are further complicated by the fact that this is not the first time that schoolgirl Ali Hogan has discovered a dead baby. White’s debut – the novel won the Dundee International Book Prize late last year – has haunting echoes of recent Irish history, and White has no compunction in pointing the finger at the patriarchal society that plays a significant part in the tragedies detailed here. The novel is by no means a polemic, however. An unusual but absorbingly twisting narrative is hugely enhanced by White’s creation of Detective Swan, a complex man whose own frustrated paternal instincts ensure that a highly politicised case becomes very personal indeed. ~ Declan BurkeFor the full shortlist, clickety-click here …
Tuesday, July 29, 2014
Who says crime doesn’t pay? The perpetrators of a botched kidnap make their getaway in this hilarious sequel to THE BIG O.According to the good people at Publishers Weekly, CRIME ALWAYS PAYS is ‘both baffling and entertaining’. For all the details, clickety-click here …
Karen and Ray are on their way to the Greek islands to rendezvous with Madge and split the fat bag of cash they conned from her ex-husband Rossi when they kidnapped, well, Madge. But they’ve reckoned without Stephanie Doyle, the cop who can’t decide if she wants to arrest Madge, shoot Rossi, or ride off into the sunset with Ray. And then there’s Melody, the wannabe movie director, who’s pinning all her hopes on Sleeps, the narcoleptic getaway driver who just wants to go back inside and do some soft time.
A European road-trip screwball noir, CRIME ALWAYS PAYS features cops and robbers, losers and hopers, villains, saints – and a homicidal Siberian wolf called Anna. The Greek islands will never be the same again.
Monday, July 28, 2014
BITTER REMEDY (Bloomsbury), the fifth in the increasingly enthralling series featuring the Rome-based police detective Commissario Alec Blume. To wit:
There’s no cure for murder.For more on Conor Fitzgerald’s novels, clickety-click here and here …
Commissario Alec Blume, on health leave and fleeing his partner Caterina, has retreated from Rome to central Italy. At the Villa Romanelli he enrolls on a natural remedies course conducted by a young woman named Silvana.
But far from recuperating or resolving his differences with Caterina, a feverish Blume becomes isolated and sluggish with sickness. Increasingly ill-at-ease in the stifling environment, the dark history of the crumbling villa and its once-magnificent gardens draws him in. And when a Romanian girl who works for Silvana’s ambiguous fiancé Niki asks for his help, Blume finds himself dragged into the shadowy case of a missing girl, and the secret horrors of the garden’s malign beauty.
Wednesday, July 23, 2014
Born in Tullamore in 1979, Darragh McKeon was only seven years old when the disaster took place. The obvious question is, why Chernobyl?
“Adi Roche’s foundation brought kids from Chernobyl to Tullamore when I was about 12 or 13,” Darragh tells me when we sit down in Dublin’s Fitzwilliam Hotel. “Those kids were the first outsiders, or foreigners, I’d ever met. And I was really intrigued. I didn’t understand anything about Chernobyl. I knew it was an event, and they were here for recuperation, but we’d get these little stories about their lives. They didn’t speak English, obviously, and we didn’t speak Russian, so we only got small details, but even the idea of them living in Soviet tower-blocks was fascinating – the tallest building in Tullamore was only three stories high.
“Then later I saw the documentary Black Wind, White Land, which Adi Roche made with Ali Hewson, and I remember them interviewing the farmers, who came back to the exclusion zone afterwards. A lot of them were old people, and the land was totally radiated and toxic and deadly, but it was home. The draw of the land was very powerful, and that really struck me – and that’s a very Irish theme, we could instinctively respond to that. It was fascinating to me that the pull of home can be that strong that you’ll give your life for it.”
So began an obsession with Chernobyl which has culminated in All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, a novel that centres on Grigory, a doctor who arrives at the disaster site in the immediate aftermath; Maria, his estranged lover, and a proscribed journalist; and Maria’s nephew Yevgeni, a teenage musical prodigy.
It’s a fascinating tale, not least because the characters find themselves suddenly embattled by an invisible foe that is impossible to fight back against.
“I’ve been to Chernobyl since I wrote the book,” says Darragh, “and I’ve talked to some nuclear physicists, and someone said a very interesting thing. He said radioactivity is silent, it’s colourless, it’s tasteless, we can’t see it – none of our senses are attuned to picking up radioactivity. He said it’s because that it wasn’t part of our evolution, that those kind of man-made, highly toxic elements only came into existence about a hundred years ago.
“When you go to Chernobyl now,” he says, “yes, it feels abandoned, and it feels like a momentous event in history happened, but that’s it – you can’t actually see it. It’s not a war-ravaged landscape. It’s actually a very peaceful place.”
For a novel so impressively illuminated with images of terrible beauty, it was what McKeon couldn’t see that proved most seductive to him as a novelist.
“With radiation, it’s a long-term, completely invisible phenomenon, and that’s quite interesting for a writer, because the kind of writing I like tends to get under the surface and explore the roots of things. And that whole [Chernobyl] accident happened under the surface. I mean, 9/11 happened and we all knew straight away, it was iconic, and some of the shock and horror of that event was its visual impact. But nobody even knew Chernobyl had happened until a radar in a facility in Sweden started going crazy days later.”
Previously a theatre director based in London, McKeon has recently moved to New York. His experience in the theatre, he suggests, gives him an unusual perspective on writing fiction.
“When you’re a director you’re the audience’s representative in the rehearsal room,” he says. “And one of the things I learned very quickly was that if you’re bored then the play’s dead. I think I took that experience into my writing. Maybe I’ll have a better sense of what’s interesting and what’s not, what’s coming across well.”
The nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island in the US is mentioned in the novel, and McKeon also cites Robert Oppenheimer, ‘tinkering with the atom in the deserts of New Mexico during the Great Patriotic War: I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.’ He doesn’t intend for the novel to be read as a cautionary tale, however.
“I wrote it out of curiosity, and from observation, and I tried to chart that line,” he says. “I certainly didn’t write it with an agenda. I think that’s dangerous ground for a novelist. There’s not really that many writers who can pull that off, combine a strong, artistically valid story and also have an agenda. George Orwell is maybe the only one. I was very careful to be as objective and neutral as I could be.”
He applies the same care to his treatment of the clean-up operation that followed the disaster, when the Russian authorities – horrifically, perhaps, to a Western mindset – deliberately sacrificed lives for the sake of the greater good.
The novel offers a running commentary on perceptions of weakness and strength, albeit as seen through the eyes of the Russian and Ukrainian protagonists.
“I think we don’t understand the Russian relationship with strength,” he says. “We look at Putin with his shirt off and think he’s naff, but there that kind of image is so important, it’s ingrained. Something that I found really interesting was Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who wrote The Gulag Archipelago and was the great dissident writer of that period of oppression. He came back to Russia in Yeltsin’s time, and when Putin was elected he said, ‘Finally, we are going to be strong again.’ Even Solzhenitsyn had this obsession with strength. So I tried to accept that as much as I could and not judge it.”
McKeon is already working on his second novel, which will be set in South America, and believes he is unlikely to return to theatre.
“I did always want to write, and I think that I probably always felt that I was a writer, but you have to get to the age, I think, at which you have something to say. Or that you have enough experience to make it worth putting down on paper. Like most writers, I tried to write when I was in my teens, and I just didn’t have anything to say. I didn’t have enough life experience.
“I think at this stage I’ve figured out now that you are what you spend your time doing,” he says. “I think you can’t have it both ways – I kind of figured that out halfway through writing the book. So I may end up doing a show or two, but I’m a novelist now. I mean, it took me a long time to admit that to myself,” he laughs, “so I might as well stick to it now.” ~ Declan Burke
This interview first appeared in the Irish Examiner.