Below the Big Blue Sky
by Anna McPartlin | Zaffre | 496pp | €16 HB | 9781838770785
Review by Isabelle Cartwright
Anna McPartlin’s Below the Big Blue Sky tells the story of the Hayes family, both living and not quite living. The novel is set in Dublin about six years ago, at the time of the government’s water charges debacle. This is a story of loss and grief, humour and tolerance, and, although it is a sequel, it also stands alone. McPartlin’s writing style is often witty, sometimes caustic and irreverent but always generous (reminiscent of an early Roddy Doyle), and her subject is unapologetically what we call ‘the female experience’. Men are not sketchily drawn characters but the best lines are given to Molly and Grace and the late Rabbit herself. Female characters here are refreshingly active, not passive. They’re not catalysts for the plot, or simple love interests. The female characters provide the drama and the plot and, like all good women, they often lose it!
There’s something about the jacket photo of the attractive McPartlin, that calls to mind the cuteness of a bunny which leads me to think of the late American writer John Updike, whose books often featured his famous character Rabbit. Perhaps both writers had the same childhood nickname? In the ways of traditional classification, Updike would be deemed ‘literature’ and McPartlin ‘popular fiction’. The fact that male writers almost exclusively dominate the former genre and women the latter is, of course, more salutary than coincidental. However, what I found to be lacking in McPartlin’s novel is a better quality of writing. The limited and often repetitive vocabulary made for me the experience of reading Below the Big Blue Sky instantly forgettable. I am left with not one memorable image or motif, not a single thought-provoking idea or any notable addition to my education. I enjoyed the book in the way I used to enjoy a comic. A comic was disposable, a good swap but not worthy of a second visit and it didn’t linger in you; it didn’t endure. At the back of the book there’s ‘Reading Group Questions’, which you really shouldn’t read beforehand: they’re a spoiler by definition. But in truth I can’t imagine a book club actually discussing anything here. There’s plenty to empathise with, laugh at, feel angry at, plenty of sentiment but not pathos. The language is written so literally that the words don’t resonate to connect outwards into the readers’ experience of, say, sickness, regret, estrangement and the more particular and cruel issues of female health, birth, mothering and medical ethics (to say more would give too much away). In other words, this novel did not invite me to ponder my own experience and felt more like something I was looking at rather than involved in.
Now having said all that, I ask myself: well, why should the novel do any of that? Why do I expect it to say something profound and wise? Why do I need to ‘find myself’ within the pages somewhere? Does it have to be about the human condition, the agonising consequences of love, does it have to be about me and everyone else or a social commentary on authority or power? No, it doesn’t. It’s not a thesis, it’s a bleedin’ novel. Was it entertaining? Yes. Did I run up the stairs every night to immerse myself in it? No. Did it validate and respect the difficult experience of its main characters? Yes. Did it demonstrate an intimacy with its subject and did it treat it with care and levity? It did. Did I enjoy the novel? Yes. Would I like to read the prequel, The Last Days of Rabbit Hayes? No.
But here’s the thing: I wouldn’t return to Tolstoy, Baudalaire, Zola, Walter Macken, Dickens or Hemmingway either. And not to be sexist, I’d rather eat worms than revisit Gaskell, or Edgeworth or Somerville and Ross. I used to think that ‘durability’ was all that separated literature from popular fiction but, of course, that word is so ideologically laden now that it’s almost redundant. What persists, however, is an idea of good writing—writing that tells a story and is also a conversation with a reader. If there’s no exchange, it might as well be a features article, or as I said, a comic like Jackie or Blue Jeans. (Ironically, Dickens’s chapters first appeared in penny dreadfuls, but that’s for another day.)
This novel is worth reading as an exercise is how the genre is progressing and how expectations change over generations. Years ago I saw a young man reading a thick paperback on the train and after reading every fifteen pages or so he simply tore them off and dumped them into the bin under his seat. This made the book easier to hold and lighter to carry. Totally reasonable, totally shocking! Could have been Proust, could have been Harold Robbins or Barbara Cartland. Who cares? I still do.
Isabelle Cartwright’s poetry, reviews and interviews with writers have been published in various places at home and abroad. Six short pieces on language and literature were published in the Irish Times’s ‘Word for Word’ column. During lockdown she was in bed with Jack Reacher on audio, and of course, with Billy.