Today I have a review of a book that will appeal to all James Joyce fans, both new and old.
The Woodcutter and His Family is a novel from award winning and world renowned playwright, Frank McGuinness. Recently published by O’ Brien Press, I was honoured to receive a copy to review.
Please continue reading for my unbiased thoughts on this very unique read….
My son betrayed me. It is a family tradition.
Didn’t I do the same to my father?
The World War intensifies in Europe. In Zurich a writer breathes his last imagining his life till now from his childhood in Dublin.
The voices of his family circling him – wife, son, daughter – carry him to his end as he hears each separate chapter chronicling the power of their passion for their famous father, their love, their hate, their need, their sorrows and joys, their strangeness.
And James Joyce has saved for them one last story to delight and defy them: The Woodcutter And His Children …
The Woodcutter and His Family is a re-imagined tale of the last days of one of the famous sons of Ireland, James Joyce. We see his life and the impact he had on his family through their eyes, as each takes private time reminiscing on the life of this great man.
His son Georgio (Archie), daughter Lucia (Beatrice) and of course his wife Nora Barnacle (Bertha) all recount their memories of the time spent in his presence.
I have read Annabel Abbs absolutely stunning novel The Joyce Girl and I have also read the very intriguing novel by Jessa Crispin The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats, and Ex-Countries. Both novels left me with a brief insight into the lives of the two most favourite women in James Joyce’s life, his daughter and his wife. Yet I will admit that I have never read a James Joyce novel. Being Irish and an avid reader I really have no explanation for this but I think I’m actually half afraid of picking up the work of such a literary giant.
Frank McGuinness has brought me a little closer to the mindset of this man, through his novel The Woodcutter and His Family
James Joyce is on his death bed. His son is the first whose words we hear.
‘I have spent my life trying to please both of them, the parents I love but who have been very difficult people, I must admit. With the pair of these Irish tearaways, it is as if I have been beating my head against a most resistant brick wall, one as resolute, as stubborn as the other, each knowing precisely how to infuriate a nation‘ He speaks of his arrival into the world in Trieste and the trauma it inflicted on his mother. He was spared no words and has carried these with him all through the years as his mother told him ‘the pain had imprinted every word on her memory, and if she didn’t recall each word, who would?’
He struggled through his youth, as can oft times be the case when parents are considered ‘different. He suffered the hurtful comments of other children and now, he stands before his father contemplating their years together and recalling happier days when the two of them spent time, as father and son, in Galway. He walks along the pathways of the graveyard where his father will be buried and feels the first notes of real grief.
Bertha (Nora) sits by his bedside reflecting her earlier days in Galway before she left Ireland. She speaks of their daughter Beatrice (Lucia) and the relationship that existed between father and daughter – one that has always given rise to great speculation. What is clear from her reflections is the love she held dear for this man, her husband. ‘Do not leave me – I beg you, do not leave me. I will do whatever you ask to keep you by my side….husband, heed the wife who cries to you in this valley of tears, my life, my sweetness, my hope, most clement, most loving child of Adam and Eve’
Now incarcerated in an institution in France, Beatrice’s (Lucia’s) life was possibly the most affected by her father. The relationship between father and daughter has been well documented by many as been quite eccentric and rather unnatural. Her thoughts are scattered as she thinks back over the years and how she came to be in this place. ‘So much of my life in that time, it is as dark as night to me and I do not like to probe it’s mysteries too deeply, since I have trouble enough with my own sanity as things now stand’ All she wishes is to see him one last time….
Finally, we get an insight into the man himself, as he embarks on his final journey. He thinks back to his own father and the relationship they had. He thinks back to his college days in Dublin and the folk he had the good grace to spend time with. He speaks of his son and of course his daughter. His thoughts turn to the woman who stuck with him over the tumultuous years of his life ‘Will you marry me? Why should you? What have I to offer? Too late for the ring, too late to shell out for whatever the band of gold sets a man back. So what else instead? For your hand would you take a story? Will you settle for that? If so…here’s mine…’
He shares a story from his death bed, the story of a woodcutter and his family…
Frank McGuinness has written a novel quite unlike anything I have ever read before. I was left feeling baffled and confused yet also enthralled and entertained, as I laughed out loud at the recollection of some of the tales told from a time long past in the history of Ireland.
This is not a story of innocence. The reader will be exposed to, what some may consider, blasphemous and irreverent comments.
There are many subjects dealt with in this novel, but primarily it is the story of the passing of one man, a man who left a significant mark on his family and on society. Grief has a strange impact on people and each deals with it in a very unique manner. The lives of Bertha (Nora), Archie (Georgio) and Beatrice (Lucia) were hugely impacted by this man they called husband and father. Whether their lives were better off having spent time with him, is for each to decide.
James Joyce’s legacy will remain with us for a very long time to come.
With The Woodcutter and His Family, Frank McGuinness has written a very unique tribute to this man, James Joyce, who will always be known as one of the most influential yet unconventional writers of the 20th century.
Purchase Link ~ The Woodcutter and His Family
Frank McGuinness is Professor of Creative Writing in University College Dublin.
A world-renowned playwright, his first great stage hit was the highly acclaimed ‘Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme’. He is also a highly skilled adapter of plays by writers such as Ibsen, Sophocles, Brecht, and writer of several film scripts, including Dancing at Lughnasa, and he has published several anthologies of poetry.
Image : Credit Dominic Martella