A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl

If, like me, you’re fascinated by the lives of writers, this little oldie is a gem. John Quinn, author and former broadcaster for Irish radio station RTÉ, ran a series of radio programmes in 1985, each featuring an interview with a female writer whose childhood had been spent in Ireland.

Following the broadcasting, he collected the interviews into an edited collection of essays for this book, some featuring extracts from the writers’ works.

There are entries from well-known writers such as Maeve Binchy, Molly Keane and Edna O’Brien, as well as Clare Boylan, travel writer Dervla Murphy and gifted short story writer Mary Lavin, amongst others.

It’s such a lovely way to get an insight into the formative experiences and influences of people who went on to write. Childhood is also a fascinating subject to explore and, naturally, these women are excellent storytellers, with a great eye for the revealing detail. While there’s considerable diversity of experience, it was so interesting to see how similar themes recurred between the essays, such as a love for books and reading, the escapism of literature, the solitary nature of the writer, and the way in which childhood memories are often revisited over and over in adult works.

Out of print now, it’s not impossible to pick up a copy if you were interested enough to track it down. I picked mine up for about £1.50 via a secondhand bookseller.

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Jess Kidd – Himself

Probably the top contender for my book of 2016. And it was a lucky find in the ‘new in’ section of my local library rather than a considered selection. I love when that happens.

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In Jess Kidd’s debut, Mahoney returns to the place of his birth, Mulderrig, a tiny village on the West coast of Ireland, to find out what happened to the mother he lost as an infant. What follows is a murder investigation with a dream-like twist, where fantastical, paranormal elements are woven into the fabric of the story so seamlessly that it often seems odder to look up and realise you’re actually in a world where the dead aren’t regularly poking their faces through the walls.

The opening section caused my heart to skip over itself for a beat or two. It’s one of the most powerful, most shocking descriptions I’ve read, so it was something of a surprise to discover the book that followed; equal parts black as pitch, laugh-out-loud funny, witty, surreal, heartwarming and full of the most glorious imaginings I’ve read in a while. I’m already a fan of magic realism but I’ve rarely seen it handled with such glorious irreverence. Kidd’s voice creates a world that is familiar but ‘faerie’, it made me think of the way that places you know well take on an otherworldly strangeness in thick fog.

Kidd is also brilliantly adept at characterisations and the townsfolk of Mulderrig are so vibrantly drawn that I feel almost as if I’ve met them in person. From the warm-hearted Bridget, to the caustic, theatrical Mrs Cauley, the vulpine priest, to the sinister Widow, there’s not a weak-link in the line-up, welcoming or otherwise. And over them all, Mahoney, who I’m probably just as susceptible to falling in love with as the poor women of Mulderrig.

I’m reluctant to say too much more, which is often the way with favourite books I knew little about on my first read. If you’re inclined to give it a go, I’d suggest you’d be better off knowing as little as possible.

Further reading: