And now for another author appreciation post.
Like an awful lot of people in Dublin, Ireland, the writing community, the reading community, and, well, the English-speaking world, I was saddened and shocked to hear of Maeve Binchy’s death at the end of July this year. (I was also furious about That Wretched Telegraph Article, but the less said about that, the better.)
I read Maeve Binchy as a preteen, first. We had some of her most recent books, in hardback, in the house; I remember my grandmother passing on her thick paperback copy of The Glass Lake to me at some stage too. I remember Binchy as an author adults seemed to have shared conversations about, rather than just recommending Book X or Book Y to one another.
I soaked up Circle of Friends and Light A Penny Candle and Firefly Summer, all of them set in an Ireland I’d never known and only caught glimpses of. I’ve reread those books more often than I can count. Light A Penny Candle opens with the smart black coat, like a magic carpet, and then Violet wondering what to do about Elizabeth; Circle of Friends is ‘Benny Hogan, Ten’ on the birthday cake except it isn’t; Firefly Summer is John and Kate in Ryan’s pub in Mountfern. I love the mix of the huge incidents and the small ones – the court cases and the violent incidents or accidents alongside the picking of dresses or going for lunch with someone.
I wasn’t mad about Tara Road, nor did I understand why it had been chosen over others by Oprah; I should explain that ‘not mad about’ in terms of Maeve Binchy means I’ve still read it twice, possibly three times. It was only a few years ago that I did a big catch up on all the recent ones, the modern-Dublin ones from Scarlet Feather on with all the tie-in characters. It was soothing and addictive at the same time.
Maybe ‘soothing’ is the wrong word; there is something very warm about the books, and often hopeful, but also honest. There are bad guys who don’t necessarily get caught, or get caught the way they should; there are people who have to suffer for no good reason. There are misunderstandings and often disasters; there are people who take advantage of others and will never understand their family members and be generally dreadful human beings. But for the main characters at least, there’s love of some kind – love of a spouse, a child, a sibling, another relative, a community, their own business – and it’s redeeming in all kinds of ways.
I’m not a fan of some of the books; I think the short stories slipped into Heart and Soul are done far less skilfully than they are in Quentins, for example. There are matter-of-fact hints of disapproval over certain young-people behaviours that irked me, too (a generational thing, I suspect). Nevertheless, when I dove into my rereadathon this year, something I’d had half a mind to do before hearing of her death, I found myself with a limited choice of texts. I’d reread all my favourites so many times, and reread many of the others recently (or in the case of Minding Frankie, read for the first time recently). So I’ve been finding new favourites among the more modern books – Scarlet Feather, Quentins, and Evening Class. (I am still not sure how ‘modern’ I believe them to be, but that’s another story. I love the small-business side of things a lot more than I did as a younger reader; the school politics are also fascinating.)
It’s almost inevitable that when a writer is prolific, you won’t love everything they write. But I can’t think of very many authors I have revisited quite as often I have Maeve Binchy, ones who’ve written several books I can get lost in over and over again. I’m glad her ‘retirement’ twelve years ago proved to be false, and very sad that she didn’t get the chance to keep proving it so. We’ll see one final book from her, out in October – A Week In Winter – and like many readers out there, I’m very much looking forward to it.
“I don’t have ugly ducklings turning into swans in my stories. I have ugly ducklings turning into confident ducks.”
- Maeve Binchy