Again, another interesting pairing to read so soon in succession. The Glorious Heresies and The Scarlet Letter are divided as much by time and geography as any moral high ground and yet there were still comparisons to be made and similarities to be noted. I haven’t embarked on this year’s reads with any kind of academic or philosophical considerations in mind but, much like in life, these things have presented themselves anyway.
The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney
This book made me want to growl. It’s all grit and grime, steam and sex, the pure, raw filth of real life. There is a scene in the brilliant film The Commitments where Jimmy Rabbit tries to translate soul music to aspiring musicians in northside Dublin – “it’s not that namby pamby, holding hands kind of sex, it’s all about ridin'” – and that is exactly what this book reminded me of. It captures so much of real life – family tiffs, alcoholism, drug addiction, crime, prostitution, poverty, young love, parenthood – in such a real way. It reminded me of sleeping on concrete floors at parties, waking up to empty cans and cigarette butts in your eyeline, the cold hard morning light breaking through curtainless windows and invading smokey rooms where sunshine isn’t welcome.
Being Irish, particularly being Irish and living elsewhere, the national portrait is often rose-tinted, emerald green and twee in it’s old-fashioned, picturesque perfection. And yes, I’ll happily admit that my family home sits in a beautiful, green valley of trees and sheep and small cottages with turf stacked against the gable wall, but that’s not all Ireland is. It’s criminal, it’s steeped in filth and dirty secrets, the Catholic shame which tints much of its contemporary fiction. Shortly after I finished The Glorious Heresies I listened to an interview with Lisa McInerney on some podcast or another and was delighted to hear that a sequel, which follows poor Ryan Cusack into whatever hope or gloom awaits him in the future. Definitely on the To Read List!
“You either need to accept the past as the building blocks that brought you right up to today, or you need to be a better liar.”
Lisa McInerney, The Glorious Heresies
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
I embarked upon this American classic many, many years ago as an English student at University of Liverpool. How far my first journey with Nathaniel Hawthorne went I can’t recall, on this return reading the first few chapters had a cloud of familiarity but how much of that was through enthusiastic study and how much from Easy A I know not. Anyway I had dismissed it to the dusty shelves of discarded reads, probably never to be revisited until, kind of by happy accident, now.
I came back to it through work. Covering a Shared Reading group for a colleague I ventured back into The Scarlet Letter, not quite blind but with preconceptions, towards the final chapters. Knowing the story, as one always knows the general plot and outcome of classic books such as this, I allowed the group to fill me in on the details and was surprised to find so much juicy intrigue and soul-wrenching drama. I was surprised to hear the group describe what was, essentially, feminist undertones, liberal thinking, both key ingredients to drive any book to the top of my To Read stack. So I went home, sought out my old uni copy and got stuck back in from the beginning and while I was pleasantly surprised by Hawthorne, I wasn’t quite as gripped as I was in that Friday morning reading group in South Liverpool. I suspect that The Scarlet Letter is a book which benefits from someone else’s enthusiasm, having a group or a teacher to rank up the drama and to dissect the moral dilemmas. I am glad I’ve ticked off another book that should have been read during my university studies, but that was about all I took away from it… that and the proper chuckle I had one evening, having put my book down to read a text message on my phone, I discovered I’d given myself a Scarlet Letter and thus proclaimed myself a seventeenth century harlot.
“It is to the credit of human nature, that, except where its selfishness is brought into play, it loves more readily than it hates. Hatred, by a gradual and quiet process, will even be transformed to love, unless the change be impeded by a continually new irritation of the original feeling of hostility.”
Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter