It is not surprising that Hilary Fannin, the winner of the Institute of Irish Studies’ annual John McGahern Book Prize for his first Irish fiction work, is expected to ally so closely with Fighting Words, the organization led by Roddy Doyle that is committed to making creative writing accessible to all.
Fighting Words’ mission statement tells us that it is “to use the creative practice of writing and storytelling to empower our children and teens – from a wide range of backgrounds – so that they are ‘they are resilient, creative and shape their own lives’.
And Fannin knows all about that resilience, having left school at age 16, finding the Irish education system of the 1970s a cold home for those like her who wanted to explore their creativity or for whom rigid rules proved unbearable. She was raised in a loving but chaotic home, as she describes in her 2015 memoir Hopscotch, and with a sly understatement in our Bloomsday conversation she announces to me that she “wasn’t a particularly docile person.”
It will be more than four decades before Fannin returns to formal education, when she enrolls in the Masters program in Creative Writing at Trinity College Dublin under the warm mentorship of Deirdre Madden. The whole experience was, Fannin recalls, “mind-blowing”, and, having been removed from academia for 40 years, she struggled to accept that she “had a right to be there.” It’s all the more remarkable that at the age of 58, she published her award-winning debut novel, The Weight of Love, last year.
But Fannin – as the readers of this journal well know – is not a novice in the art of the writer, having provided a original Irish Times column for many years. The Chronicle is the result of Fannin’s work as a playwright, begun under the watchful eye of British playwright Bernard Kops via a City Lit course at a magical price in London in the early 1990s.
The London of this era is highlighted in The Weight of Love where the lives of two young Irish teachers, Ruth and Robin, intersect with that of the basement bohemian, Joseph. It’s a cityscape that will be familiar to many Irish people of a particular generation: rainy nights in Soho, love at first sight in Camden Town, the cold wind of Euston Road.
Fannin had his first play, Mackerel Sky, produced at the Bush Theater in London in 1997 before being critically acclaimed with Doldrum Bay in Dublin’s Peacock in 2003. Impressed with the play’s ability to capture the times Particularly from this time, The Irish Times came up with the job offer, first written on television and later extending into the current popular weekly column.
This talent for isolating the mood of the moment is echoed in the novel, which divides its time between London in 1995 and Dublin in 2018. One of the things The Weight of Love got me thinking about was the way that period under 25 actually represents something like a historical eon than a generation: the dividing line here is no longer the DA and BC of the birth of Christ but the years before and after the advent of the smartphone . As someone who came of age in the years leading up to the march of this ubiquitous device, the passages of London left me longing for an unguarded past, a world rich in possibilities of anonymity. .
The novel becomes, at its base, a reflection on the way in which we manage the intensity of youth and our memories of this time as we go through middle age and all its vicissitudes: “courteous and nervous” marriages, capricious children. , bourgeois barbecues.
Ruth, who has never sufficiently healed herself from the scars of an intense but brief love affair, cannot shake off the power of memory, having settled into a functional, albeit lukewarm, married life: “Monogamy , considered Ruth, is fatally flawedâ¦ You cannot forget the past. You cannot monogamize memory.
Ultimately, Ruth decides that life, like politics, is a game we can’t win: âWe all fail. At the end. I don’t think there is another option. But, despite this rather pessimistic assessment, it would be incorrect to classify this novel as a portrait of misery. It’s vivid, intensely observed, often funny, and makes you want to see how things turn out for those people at the crossroads that most of us will face in life.
The Dublin of 2018, which serves as the backdrop for the majority of the book, is a place still marked by economic collapse and yet again accelerating at an unbearable speed, leaving behind a whole new generation, embodied in a neighborhood pub. : âReborn now in the Republic of hip, it was a place that served craft beers to stylish young Dubliners who were paying cruel rents for living so close to the city. It’s an ominously familiar story. Dublin is now, Fannin fears, growing in size, devoid of cultural creativity, and Ireland, once again, is once again becoming Joyce’s old sow eating her young.
Fannin, born 1962, is a wonderful example for any aspiring writer keen to bring his fiction to light for the first time. His influences are Catholic, with Joni Mitchell and David Bowie as important for his artistic sensibility as Anne Enright or Anton Chekhov. And while this is her first novel, it sure won’t be her last. In addition to currently working on his fiction, Fannin is adapting Maxim Gorky’s Children of the Sun for the Rough Magic theater troupe and putting together a collection of essays based on his diary column.
All things considered, one could read this explosion of activity as a remarkable late bloomer and yet that doesn’t quite ring the bell. âNewâ writing does not necessarily mean âyoungâ writing and beginners can emerge anytime and anywhere. Far from being an end, The Weight of Love should be seen as a beginning, and we look forward to all that is to come.
Frank Shovlin is Professor of Irish Literature at the Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool and editor of Faber & Faber’s Letters of John McGahern, to be published in September.