Pilar Villar-Argáiz
University of Granada, Spain

Creative Commons 4.0 by Pilar Villar-Argáiz. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.

Marisol Morales-Ladrón (ed.)
Oxford and Bern: Peter Lang, 2016.
ISBN: 978-3-0343-2219-5
351 pages

The publication in 2013 of the edited collection Voices, Inherited Lines: Literary and Cultural Representations of the Irish Family gave a new impulse to the process of revisiting the trope of the family, an essential symbol and metaphor of the Irish nation, as reflected in nationalist discourse and literary and cultural representations of the country. Following the lead of this pioneering study, the recently published collection of essays Family and Dysfunction in Contemporary Narrative and Film, edited by Marisol Morales-Ladrón, participates in the process of critical reassessment of the role of the family in Irish cultural discourse, consequently filling an important gap in Irish studies. This collection brings together the recent research of leading scholars of Irish studies in Spain. The book offers a detailed examination of four decades of Irish writing and film, exploring the various ways in which the concepts of the family and the home have been construed and represented in Irish culture, topics not sufficiently explored before.

The collection of essays is comprehensive in many different ways. To start with, the list of fictional writings and films discussed is impressive. The book offers an exhaustive survey of contemporary artistic productions in Ireland, and thus it becomes an essential reference point nowadays for anyone interested in contemporary Irish culture. Secondly, one of the achievements of this monograph is its multidisciplinary nature. Each contributor approaches the theme of family dysfunction from his/her own respective field of expertise. In this way, Rosa González Casademont focuses on the Irish film industry, while Inés Praga Terente deals with Irish life-writings and Asier Altuna-García de Salazar centres on multicultural fiction. On their part Juan F. Elices examines the literary genre of satire and Marisol Morales-Ladrón centres on the field of contemporary women’s writing. The consolidated trajectory that these critics have in the above-mentioned topics is a guarantee of the rigour and seriousness of the monograph itself.

The book opens with a long introduction which delineates the elusive meaning of the term “family” as articulated in Ireland throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. This preliminary chapter is updated in its inclusion of relevant bibliography on the matter and on its examination of recent sociological changes (i.e. secularisation, immigration, or the 2015 referendum on same-sex marriages) which have challenged, even more, the already unstable concept of the traditional Irish nuclear family, bringing up alternative family configurations.

After this, the book is structured into two parts. Section number one, entitled “Irish Narrative and Filmic Discourses of Dysfunction”, is comprised of five long chapters which analyse the various ways in which family dysfunctionality has been portrayed in Irish culture since the last decades of the 20th century. Each chapter usefully begins with an abstract summarizing the main contents exposed in the subsequent pages. As evinced here, the essays draw on a wide range of critical views (ranging from literary criticism and trauma theory to multicultural and transcultural approaches, among others), in their study of the trope of the Irish family, approaching this theme from an array of different perspectives.

The first chapter, by Marisol Morales-Ladrón, analyses the literature produced by Irish women writers since the 1980s in order to underscore different forms of dysfunction, ranging from incest, child abuse, and orphanage, to domestic violence, problematic parenting, and unconventional/abject motherhood. The chapter begins by offering an overview of the socio-historical evolution of the trope of the Irish family, concentrating on the implementation of new laws on contraception, abortion and divorce. After this, Morales-Ladrón concentrates on eight narratives which have been carefully selected as representative of each of the periods discussed: Julia O’Faolain’s No Country for Young Men (1980), Deirdre Madden’s The Birds of the Innocent Wood (1988), Lia Mill’s Another Alice (1996), Mary O’Donnell’s The Elysium Testament (1999), Anne Enright’s The Gathering (2007), Jennifer Johnston’s Foolish Mortals (2007), Claire Keegan’s Foster (2010), and Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s You (2010). While recognizing previous critical studies on these novels, this chapter is unique in its comparative analysis of literary texts rarely studied in conjunction and in its focus on the trope of the family, an issue rarely discussed with respect to these narratives. In most of the novels examined, Morales-Ladrón reveals how dysfunction appears in relation to the disclosure of a traumatic event in the past, which often involves pain, violence, a suffocating patriarchal context, and at times, the defence of new forms of family bonding. The author concludes by asserting that “the dysfunctional Irish family is not a new phenomenon of the last forty years, but a sign of identity of much of the literature published in Ireland in previous decades” (78). Chapters such as this constitute an important attempt to counteract the gender imbalance observed in many anthologies and literary compilations which still privilege the male perspective over the female one.

The following contribution by Inés Praga Terente examines the trope of the family and the different ways of revisiting home in relation to the literary genres of the Irish autobiographical novel and the memoir. After establishing a useful distinction between these two kinds of narratives, the author makes some preliminary reflections on the reliability/unreliability of memory, its subversive power as a narrative device and the concept of nostalgia in literature. Drawing on significant scholarship on these issues and on the work of iconic figures in Irish Studies such as Declan Kiberd, Gerry Smyth and Seamus Heaney, the author comments on the idiosyncratic nature of Irish literary autobiographies and memoirs, literary genres which are flourishing in the country, given the pressing need of some writers to establish “an imaginary home” and to reconstruct “an imaginary family” (97). In particular, Praga Terente focuses on the tropes of absent fathers and absent and unhappy mothers as perceived in these two genres. Within the first group of autobiographical novels, the author studies Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy (1992), Hugo Hamilton’s The Speckled People (2004), and two novels by John Banville, The Sea (2005) and Ancient Light (2013). In these four narratives, the family nucleus is utterly fragile and violence appears as a predominant theme. Within the genre of memoirs, the author includes for examination John McGahern’s Memoir (2005), Edna O’Brien’s Country Girl (2012), Nuala O’Faolain’s Are You Somebody? (1996) and Almost There (2003), and Hugo Hamilton’s Every Single Minute (2014), this latter a form of autofiction which merges Hamilton’s memoir with that of O’Faolain. In these narratives, Praga Terente identifies recurrent family patterns constructed around the painful experiences of neglect and alienation. As persuasively argued in this study, home revisiting becomes a strategy that these writers share as a therapeutic exercise to (re)define the self and recover/reconstruct a lost sense of belonging.

The following chapter by Asier Altuna-García de Salazar approaches the theme of dysfunction as represented in a series of intercultural and multicultural novels published in the period 1980s-2010s. The author begins by reflecting on recent socio-economic factors which have challenged the conventional vision of the family unit, in particular the arrival of what Fanning (2009: 1) calls “new guests of the Irish nation”. This chapter is innovative in its consideration of the multicultural and intercultural prisms as suitable approaches from which to study current Irish literary productions. In this way, family dysfunction is examined in relation to issues of race and ethnicity, in order to account for new themes which have emerged in recent texts produced in Ireland, such as citizenship issues, mixed-race marriages or the integration of immigrant communities. In particular, the chapter is pioneering in its defence of the incipient field of interculturality in Irish discourse, which, in contrast to multiculturality (which has a longer tradition in Irish studies), has not been vindicated until recently with names such as Gavan Titley and Vera Sheridan. The essay is groundbreaking not only for its theoretical framework; Altuna-García de Salazar argues for an “inclusive approach” by studying Irish writers in conjunction with migrant writers and the so-called “New Irish” writers, a “one-dimensional perspective” (143) rarely carried out before. The fictional texts examined in this chapter include Hugo Hamilton’s Hand in the Fire (2019); Emer Martin’s Baby Zero (2007); Cauvery Madhavan’s Paddy Indian (2001); Margaret McCarthy’s My Eyes Only Look Out. Experiences of Irish People of Mixed Race Parentage (2001); Marsha Mehran’s Pomegranate Soup (2005) and Rosewater and Soda Bread (2008); and an ample selection of short stories from Emer Martin, Colm Toíbín, Roddy Doyle, Mary O’Donnell, and Nena Bhandari. In particular, Altuna-García de Salazar studies how these writers offer a more fluid delineation of identity, interrogating traditional stereotypes of the Irish nuclear family and exploring alternative, unorthodox family structures constructed upon hyphenation and “the overall realities of a new global world” (172).

The contribution that follows, by Juan F. Elices, approaches dysfunctionality in a series of Irish novels which fall under the category of satire, namely Anne Haverty’s One Day as a Tiger (1998), Mark Macauley’s The House of Slamming Doors (2010) and Justin Quinn’s Mount Merrion (2013). The chapter begins with some useful general observations on the literary mode of satire, which Elices defines as a dysfunctional genre par excellence. After contextualizing the aforementioned novels in the wider framework of iconic satires such as Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Huxley’s Brave New World, the author offers an enlightening discussion of changing perspectives of family patterns in Ireland throughout the 20th and 21st centuries (a section which could have constituted a whole chapter in itself for its theoretical rigour and in-depth sociological analysis). As Elices demonstrates, the country’s social background emerges in the form of satire in Haverty’s, Macauley’s and Quinn’s novels, narratives in which the family appears as an important source of dysfunction. In particular, the author examines the causes of dysfunction in these novels, ranging from alcoholism and gender violence, to neglected parenthood, non-stereotypical mothers, and troublesome youths. The author’s authoritative reading of these recent Irish novels in the context of canonical texts in the tradition of satirical and dystopian literature (i.e. Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels or Orwell’s Animal Farm) reinforces the dysfunctional nature of these texts. His analysis also skilfully reveals the many different ways in which Irish satirists (from Swift to the present) have distanced themselves from idealized portraits of the nuclear Catholic family, offering alternative forms of family bonding.

The final chapter in this section by Rosa González Casademont examines cinematic representations of the concepts of home and the family. As González Casademont reveals, mainstream feature films seldom deal with those disruptive factors (i.e. incest, domestic violence, emigration) that have weakened the traditional family structure, while indigenous films tend to portray more accurately family dysfunctionality. The author follows a thematic, rather than chronological, criteria in her analysis of a wide corpus of films from the period 1980s-2010s (an impressive number of 66 films in total), focusing on key aspects such as the demystification of rural pastoral Ireland, the reconfiguration of traditional stereotypes of motherhood, and the tropes of the absent, ineffective or abusive father, among other themes. After considering a series of extra- and para-cinematic aspects which affect the industrial side of film production and consumption, González Casademont offers an in-depth analysis of cases of family dysfunctionality in a series of commercial films and others with a more limited commercial distribution. Towards the end of her chapter, the author makes a convincing critique of Celtic Tiger comedies which, with a few exceptions, fail to deal with the social tensions and the contemporary realities of exclusion and family dysfunction in 21st century Ireland. González Casademont finishes by offering an extended reading of a case study film, Eamon (2009), a low-budget film which has received very little critical attention, despite its powerful engagement with the decay of the traditional Irish family. In its exhaustive list of films discussed and in its well-sustained use of critical references, this chapter provides one of the most comprehensive discussions of contemporary Irish cinema nowadays. It is also highly innovative in its comparative study of well-known films in conjunction with others rarely discussed before (such as Come on Eileen, 2010).

These five essays are followed by a final section in the volume which includes three interviews with authors and film directors for whom the trope of the family plays a central role in their work: Emer Martin, Jim Sheridan and Kirsten Sheridan. In different ways, these artists represent important challenges to received assumptions on the role of the traditional Irish family. As shown in these interviews, the concept of the nuclear Catholic family is a fiction which sustained the rhetoric of Irish nationhood and Catholicism, but which found no correspondence neither in the reality of the country nor in most of its cultural output.

All in all, this book offers a sustained focus on the cultural representation of the concepts of home and family in Ireland. After reading this study, one cannot but conclude that the trope of the dysfunctional family is so common in 20th century Irish literature and film that it becomes the norm and not the exception. Morales-Ladrón’s sustained and meticulous edition provides enlightening analyses on the work of well-known and not so well-known artists in Ireland, revealing the disruptive force of culture when debilitating ideal constructions of Irishness. It is thus an essential and valuable contribution for anyone interested not only in familial dysfunction but also in any aspect of Irish Studies.

Works Cited

Fanning, Bryan. 2009. New Guests of the Irish Nation. Dublin: Irish Academic Press.

O’Keefe, Yvonne, and Claudia Reese, eds. 2013. Voices, Inherited Lines: Literary and Cultural Representations of the Irish Family. Reimagining Ireland Series (Vol. 47). Oxford: Peter Lang.