TagGhosts and Lightning

Ghosts and Lightning (2009) by Trevor Byrne

It takes only a few words to turn Denny Cullen’s life upside-down: ‘Ma’s gone. Jesus Denny, yeh have to come home.’ And it takes only a few pages for Trevor Byrne to establish himself as a writer who needs to be read. In that first chapter, Denny makes a hasty return to Dublin, leaving his life in Wales behind; the fragmented second-person impressions of the city, interspersed with the chatter of the twerp from the bus whom he’d rather ignore, convey brilliantly Denny’s sense of numbness at his abrupt loss and return.

The rest of Ghosts and Lightning is told in first-person, in Denny’s Dublin vernacular. It does feel a little awkward, structurally, that the initial ‘frame’ is never returned to; but this is a minor gripe when set against the way thaat the narration brings Denny to life as a character. More than that, actually, I’d say it comes to symbolise Denny’s situation — unable to leave his old life behind, just as his accent will go with him wherever he goes.

Not that Denny’s going anywhere right now. ‘I’m runnin and gettin nowhere at the same time,’ he says. ‘I remember feelin, when I first left for Wales, that I was in control. And I feel anythin but in control now.’ He’s stuck: no job, no transport of his own, living in his mother’s old house with his sister Paula (who has let the place go to seed), estranged from his brothers (one of whom legally owns the house, and may threaten eviction), friends mixed up in drugs… The list goes on. Ghosts and Lightning is a chronicle of how Denny tries to navigate his way through all this.

If all that sounds like hard going, rest assured it is not. The use of vernacular gives the telling an energy that keeps one reading, and there are some nicely amusing scenes along the way (such as when Denny goes to buy a clapped-out old car from his brother, and it turns out to be full of chickens).

However, Byrne’s novel has a serious heart, and is especially concerned (I feel) with how we may try to deal with tragic events, like the death of a close relative. One of the themes that really stands out for me is that of using stories to give shape to life. In Denny’s rather desperate words: ‘Stories though, man. The way they work on yeh. They’re a kind o spell, aren’t they? Or a prayer, maybe, some o them. An article of faith. How the fuck else can yeh make sense o things, like? […] There has to be meanin.’

But must there?  Ghosts and Lightning is (deliberately, I think) somewhat episodic in structure, its chapters feeling like a series of anecdotes; and it demonstrates how life’s uneven edges are usually smoothed off to create fiction. One sees this, too, in the way Bryne deploys supernatural and mythical concepts. Denny and other characters frequently refer to such things: most prominently, Paula thinks there’s a ghost haunting the house; but there’s also that last quotation above, and many other examples. Yet none of it turns out to be real, nor does it really feel as though Byrne wants us to entertain the possibility — rather, I see it as another manifestation of stories not working in the real world.

If there are problems with Ghosts and Lightning, I think they’re artefacts of the episodic structure to which I referred above. Maybe the plot is not as tight as one might wish, but that’s probably the point. And the structure sets up a particular rhythm of reading that (for me) lessens the impact of some of the shifts in tone (they become one small jolt among many).

However, these are easily ouwteighed by all the good things about the novel. I haven’t yet elaborated on Byrne’s sharp observation of charatcter. Take, for example, this description of two ‘old women obsessed with the clergy’, who attend a funeral: ‘two pious vultures, their eyes filled with gleeful sorrow.’ Or the comment about Denny’s brother’s wife, who insisted they erect a satellite dish because ‘she didn’t want people assumin she hadn’t the money for cable TV.’

Places, too, are strikingly described, with Denny suggesting that Ireland has issues of its own to work through: ‘We’re a shoddy country ourselves too, full o guilt and doubt and hidden nastiness. It’s just that, given a possibly brief period o financial well-bein, we happen to scrub up well.’ Denny and his country might, then, be seen as being in analogous situations. During the course of Ghosts and Lightning, we see the difficulties that both have — and, by novel’s end, that there may be a way forward for both. It’s a realistically optimistic end to a fine first novel.

Cheltenham Literature Festival Diary: Part 3

Part 1 of this diary is available here, with part 2 here.

Friday 16th

10.00 am: Today is deliberately light on events for me; but now it gets even lighter, as the mathematician Marcus du Sautoy is unfortunately now unable to attend. I was looking forward to his talk, but now I’ll have to find something else to go to instead.

6.00 pm: Last night, I pretty much abandoned the private game of ‘Guest Director bingo’ I’d been playing. And now I walk past Anthony Horowitz, today’s Guest Director; I could have had a full scorecard!

7.00 pm: Here’s the ‘something else’ I chose to attend – ‘Castaway’s Choice’, in which a panel are asked which book they’d take to a desert island (the name of a certain radio programme is apparently not allowed to be mentioned). Apparently Geoffrey Howe chose The Good Hotel Guide in a previous year, but we get three fiction choices here. Booker nominee Adam Foulds chooses Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal (a book I’d never heard of before, but it sounds interesting. Writer and Times Literary Editor Erica Wagner chooses Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. And PR agent Mark Borkowski’s choice is J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. I’ve never read any of those (I know, I  know…), but it’s an entertaining and interesting session all the same. (Particularly amusing is the moment when Borkowski tries to find the last page of The Catcher in the Rye on his e-book reader, so he can read a passage, only to give up in frustration and pull out his good old paper copy – there’s life in the printed word yet!).

8.45 pm: Rich Hall is interviewed, and reads from his new story collection. I was sitting at the wrong side of the theatre to get a really good view, but it didn’t matter. Hall was excellent, by turns both funny and insightful; and his book sounds like a good read, too.

Saturday 17th

3.00 pm: A late start, as another of my planned events has been cancelled, and my first choice of replacement was full. I go along first to the Highland Park marquee, where a number of Canongate authors are reading from their work – and free shots of whisky are being offered. The author at this session is a new novelist called Trevor Byrne, who reads from Ghosts and Lightning; I’m so impressed that I go to the book tent and buy a copy. [I’m reading it now, and if it finishes as well as it starts, you can expect a very positive write-up on this very blog before too long.]

5.00 pm: What can I say about the great Steve Redgrave? Perhaps simply that he’s an engaging interviewee with a fascinating story. But I have to leave before the end to make it to my next event…

6.10 pm: More comedy, as today’s Guest Director, Mark Watson, interviews Armando Iannucci. But it’s like no other interview I’ve seen at the Festival, as they open to questions from the audience at 6.15, and get through about three questions in the next 45 minutes, each answer leading into wonderful digressions. I saw Watson in stand-up this January; he was hilarious then, and he’s hilarious now. I’ve never really followed Iannucci’s work, and am not really into political satire, but he wins me over at this session. Definitely one of the two funniest and best comedy events I attended at the whole Festival [the other is my final event tomorrow].

8.45 pm: Now, for a change, an author known for writing literature – and, moreover, the only event where I’ve already read the book under discussion. Iain Banks is as animated and engaging as ever; but I do start to wonder if Transition is really the kind of novel that lends itself to an interview of this nature, as some of the discussion feels a bit dry. And one questioner from the audience casually gives away the ending of The Wasp Factory, which I do not appreciate.

Sunday 18th

10.00 am: The Guest Director for this final day of the Festival is Jonathan Coe, at whose first event my day begins. The brochure says, ‘[Coe] introduces a varied programme of his own writing, including [a short story] reworked as a performance piece for voice and piano’. Sounds interesting to me. But, when Coe takes the stage, he announces that there’s a change to the programme. What we get is one single reading (by a female actor) of extracts from one of Coe’s novels, with a live piano accompaniment. This is okay, but I can’t help feeling disappointed, as the original idea sounded better; and I’m not sure how much the ‘soundtrack’ really added. Still, it was enough to make me interested in reading one of Coe’s books.

11.30 am: Back to the Canongate tent for a reading by Mari Strachan, another début author. Again, I’m really intrigued by this, and end up buying a copy of The Earth Hums in B Flat [though I’ve yet to start reading it].

2.00 pm: Another of Jonathan Coe’s events, this time a discussion on the place for ‘serious’/’literary’ fiction at the present time. I’m interested to see who will attend this session – the audience is (sadly) quite small; most of them are older than me, though (happily) I’m not the youngest; and I can’t help but wonder how many of the audience are just here as readers, and have no connection with publishing or writing. Anyway, the panel consists of Pete Ayrton (from the publisher Serpent’s Tail), Suzi Feay (former Literary Editor of the Independent on Sunday); and James Heneage (founder of Ottakar’s). Coe suggests at the end that the debate has been largely ‘optimistic’, though I’m not sure I’d agree with him. I’m particularly struck by how much the survival of ‘serious’ fiction seems to be dependent on other factors; it’s not whether there will be a demand for that kind of fiction (there will but, as ever, it will be a minority interest), but whether the industry will be able to support it, given that the money for it will probably have to come from elsewhere.

4.00 pm: A talk by former ambassador Christopher Meyer on his history of British diplomacy. I booked this event at the last minute, on a whim, but I’m very glad I did. Meyer is a wonderful speaker, his passion and enthusiasm for his subject really shining through.

6.00 pm: My original choice of event for this slot (Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis) was fully booked, but this one is just fine instead. The joint interview with novelists Patrick Gale and Marina Lewycka is a joy, the best fiction event of the Festival for me. I’ve never read Gale at all, and only one book of Lewycka’s (A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian, which I quite enjoyed), so I’m not quite sure what to expect. But both are highly engaging (though Lewycka sounds exactly like an old French tutor of mine, which takes a little getting used to), especially when they spark off each other. Some participants in events at the Festival have been too ‘chummy’ for the good of the discussion, but here it’s an asset (I’ve no idea whether Lewycka and Gale are friends in real life, but they have that kind of natural rapport here). And my TBR pile grows larger still…

8.00 pm: Last event of the Festival – the great Barry Cryer, someone who’s been around all my life, yet I’ve never really appreciated the sheer range of his work. He’s brilliant here, with anecdotes from a lifetime in comedy, and some very funny jokes. At the very end of the session, the interviewer realises they haven’t even mentioned Cryer’s new book – but what does it matter after such a wonderful hour?

 ***

And that was my Festival. All in all, a highly enjoyable ten days. I’m glad I went, and would certainly go back. Then again, there are all those other literary festivals out there, just waiting to be explored. As ever, so many possibilities, and not enough time to choose them all…

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