Book review, Irish literature

hOme by Frank Ronan

Irish writer, Frank Ronan

Irish writer, Frank Ronan

When a novel makes you laugh out loud it’s a great and wondrous thing.

Home, Ronan’s 6th novel from 2002, is a first-person narrative of a young boy, Coorg, born to an unwed teenager into the hippiest of hippy communes in 1963. These hippies throw the I Ching to decide if they should leave a rock concert early or not; they carefully remove a cabbage, roots, soil, and all, and carry it to a quiet place before chopping its head off so the other cabbages won’t get upset at the carnage; and their form of free love, wantonly and frequently exercised, is more about longevity than climax.

He spends his first six years with these people who care, stimulate and provide for him in a rural English paradise. They believe him to be the ‘messiah’ – also courtesy of the I Ching – or, as they call him, the ‘mage’. He is special and treated so. A boyish question about why a tree, next to a big rock, is dying will get an answer something like “The spirit of the rock and the spirit of the tree aren’t getting along at the moment.”

Then his grandparents suddenly show up and kidnap him (‘save him’) back to Ireland and plunge him headfirst into Catholicism, village politics, fish and chips, sausages, chocolate, and school with a new name: Joseph. The commune disbanded soon after this not because of the kidnapping of their ‘mage’ but because its self-styled mystic leader was caught eating a Snickers Bar in the High Street. Now for Joseph growing up in Ireland a boyish question would elicit an answer like “Stop asking such silly questions or the boogie man will cut your legs off and put you in his sack.”

He swaps one unreality for another.

“Is Baby Jesus Black?”
“Don’t ever talk about Our Lord like that.”
She raised her hand at me and I looked at it and realised what had caused the sting on the back of my legs when I vomited down the side of the car door.
“Baby Jesus couldn’t be black. He’s God.”
“Where is he now?”
“He’s on the altar. Behind the little curtain at the back there’s a gold door and he’s in there.”
“How do you know?”
“Because the lamp is lit.”
“Will he come out?”
“You have to wait for the priest to do everything, and the bell will ring and he’ll elevate the host, and if you’re good you can see God except if you’re good you’d be saying your prayers and not looking, and you have to make your Holy Communion first.”
“Is he a kind of wizard?”
“No. He’s God. He’s very, very holy.”
“Is that why you can’t see him?”
“Yes. And stop chewing that penny. A dirty black man might have touched it.”

Home is about belonging and it’s the first of a quartet although Ronan, on his website, warns us: “and the more you annoy me about it, the longer it will take to get on with the second”. He is obviously still being annoyed about it because nothing, novel wise, has appeared since 2002. However he is a keen gardener and talking about gardens and gardening will turn his usual laidback manner into one of wide-eyed enthusiasm. He also writes a monthly column in Gardening Illustrated and was a guest speaker at that magazine’s recent festival held in the Cotswold market town of Malmsbury last month; so gardening and writing about gardens, and not annoying readers, may be the reason the quartet is still only one book. His website (frankronan.com) seems equally unattended.

“I’m obsessed,” he says, “I can’t remember people’s names, but I can always remember plant names.”

For Ronan (born 1963) Ireland is ‘home’ but he lives in Worcestershire (“It’s the last bit of England worth living in”) where his partner commutes to London (“I hate London.”) but they spend weekends together.

His home town New Ross, not far from Colm Toibin’s home town of Enniscorthy, County Wexford, is where the young Coorg is taken and ‘rehabilitated’ and although the novelist swears he’s never stayed in a hippy commune there is enough evidence to suggest that the Irish growing-up of the young Joseph could be very much like the Irish growing-up of the young Frank; but then again there’s autobiography to some degree in every piece of writing.

Ronan’s humour, and there’s lots of it, doesn’t come from a child narrator’s misunderstandings and lopsided conclusions but from an adult narrator and so an adult’s sense of humour: “The pub turned out to be the manyplies of the village, where all the life missing from the street was being fermented into a state of contented excretability.”

Let’s hope that somewhere betwenn weeding, picking cabbages and writing about them he can find time for  books 2, 3, and 4. I’ll read them.

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