I am sure thousands of words have already been written in tribute to Irish novelist Maeve Binchy, who died on Monday at the age of 72, but I could not let her death go unmarked, even if other people have already said the same thing, or expressed it better than I can. Many reviewers and literary critic are dismissive of Binchy, regarding her as a light-weight author, churning out cosy, comforting novels about Irish families. But there’s far more to her than that.
She was a brilliant story teller, who produced well-crafted, well-plotted tales, which are always character led. She was obviously someone who was interested in people and what made them tick, and it’s the people in her novels which hold your interest, for she wrote about them with warmth, compassion and humour. Her characters are rarely two-dimensional: they are fully rounded human-beings, a mix of good and bad, well intentioned perhaps, but with flaws and failings that make it easy to relate to them. Their decisions and actions may not always be right, but they’ve been shaped by life, and it’s always interesting to see how relationships develop as Binchy sets her characters in various situations within the framework of her story, then sits back to watch what happens.
And Maeve Binchy was never afraid to explore serious or controversial issues, or to write about topics generally regarded as taboo. Light a Penny Candle, which remains my favourite, covers some of the same ground as Edna O’Brien’s ‘The Country Girls’, includes alcoholism, sex without marriage, a marriage without sex, abortion, death and mental health issues. Written in 1982, it was Binchy’s first novel. In 1940 shy, self-contained, unconfident Elizabeth White is sent away from wartime London to Ireland, where she stays with the large, noisy, boisterous family of her mother’s old schoolfriend, and makes friends with exuberant, extrovert red-haired Aisling.
The two girls are very different in personality, but through the years that follow they support each other through thick and thin, though life does not turn out as either expect. There’s a cast of memorable characters. In Ireland there’s warm, loving, hard-working Aunt Eileen, who draws little Elizabeth into her large, sprawling family and treats her as one of her own. Back home in London we find Elizabeth’s cold fish of a father, and sensible, devoted Harry who becomes her stepfather and provides her mother with a few brief years of happiness.
While Aisling marries a wealthy man who drinks and is unable to maintain any normal relationship with a woman, quiet, sensible Elizabeth comes out of her shell and embarks on an on-off affair with the charming, good-looking (but utterly feckless) Johnny Stone, before marrying solid, reliable Henry, an up and coming solicitor who is everything Johnny is not, albeit rather dull. They have a child, but Elizabeth’s life with Henry is as unsatisfactory as Aisling’s life with Tony.
The novel covers just 20 years, taking you on an emotional journey about love and friendship, families and marriage. It may not be great literature (it’s certainly not to be compared to Virginia Woolf”s Mrs Dalloway for example, or anything by Jane Austen or George Eliot) but it’s a great read, and I’ve returned to it many times and enjoyed it just as much as I did first time round.
Anyway, what’s wrong with liking different literary genres? Just because I love Woolf, Austen, Eliot and the Brontes doesn’t mean I can’t love authors like Maeve Binchy and Katie Fforde as well.
Binchy seems to be known mainly for her novels, which tend to be long and a little rambling, but her short stories, surprisingly perhaps, are much more tightly controlled, as well as having a dark edge and being much more thought provoking than you would expect – I think they deserve a much wider audience.
I’ve posted this for Carrie K’s Ireland Reading Challenge 2012, which you will find here.
Pic of Maeve Binchy courtesy of Jon Kay at Wikimedia Commons.