Cláir Ní Aonghusa

"Civil and Strange"

"All through her childhood and teenage years her mother produced various men friends, claiming them to be cousins or in-laws who, nevertheless, shared her bedroom for weeks or months before departing on good or bad terms, or simply absenting themselves—sometimes taking monetary souvenirs or mementoes with them—never to be mentioned again."

(Reviewed by Guy Savage MAR 9, 2008)

Civil and Strange by Clair Ni Aonghusa

Set in present-day Ireland, the bittersweet novel Civil and Strange from Cláir Ní Aonghusa explores the price and pressures of conformity through the breakaway life of thirty-eight-year-old teacher, Ellen Hughes. With her marriage over, and feeling a desperate need to escape the confines of a relationship with her shallow, vain mother, Ellen leaves the progressive city of Dublin and moves to the seemingly idyllic village of Ballindoon. Ellen spent many pleasant childhood summers there, and armed with nostalgia, she moves to Ballindoon and purchases the cottage once owned by her relatives. The cottage is in a sad state of decay, and Ellen plans to renovate it and her life simultaneously.

The best advice for anyone moving to Ballindoon is to be on guard against gossip, and when Ellen starts a new life without her husband, she finds out the hard way that this part of Ireland is not as tolerant as Dublin. In many ways Ballindoon and its inhabitants--a close-knit bunch who manage to know everyone else’s business--represent the "old" Ireland--an Ireland ruled by the strong tradition of church authority with the desires of the individual subsumed by responsibility to the land and to the family. Anyone who moves into the village is known as a “blow-in”--a “permanent outsider tainted by the evil of cosmopolitan influences, somebody who will never slot into village life, despite family connections.” Ellen discovers that many of Ballidoon’s residents keep her at a distance, watching and waiting to criticize her morality.

Ellen’s story is interwoven with the story of Matt, Ellen’s uncle, a bitterly unhappy man who caved in to family pressure decades earlier and married a woman he didn’t love. It’s Uncle Matt who warns Ellen to “play it civil and strange” with the villagers. His advice is to be polite but “to be careful” of what she says. Matt understands that to the “core of hardened gossips,” Ellen represents “sport”--a sort of entertainment. In spite of Matt’s warning, it isn’t long before Ellen gives the villagers some juicy gossip, yet surprisingly, some villagers sympathize with Ellen’s unconventional path to independence and happiness. Many of the older villagers have experienced the misery of unhappy marriages, but have remained with their spouses for a range of reasons. Indeed the novel is framed by suicides--those villagers who tried to knuckle under to convention but found the price far too heavy to pay.

Anther main character in the novel is kind-hearted Beatrice. Once Matt’s love interest, Beatrice is now a lonely widow who spends her days trying to cope with bitter memories of an unhappy marriage, the estrangement of one son, and the suicide of another. While the novel contains several clichéd elements  (a hunky contractor, for example) Aonghusa doesn’t choose to take the path to a clichéd plot, and neither does she go overboard with a warm and fuzzy conclusion. Instead the novel takes a few realistic and unexpected twists and turns. If you enjoy the novels of the immensely popular Maeve Binchy, then there’s an excellent chance that you will enjoy the wisdom and warmth of Civil and Strange. Generous and forgiving in its treatment of its flawed characters, the novel offers realistic options for those who face the battle between traditional vs. modern values in a progressive Ireland.

  • Amazon readers rating: 4.5 starsfrom 3 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Civil and Strange at Houghton Mifflin

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About the Author:

Cláir Ní Aonghusa was born, reared and educated in Dublin. Her short stories have been published widely. She has a degree in English and is an award-winning poet and short-story writer, and has twice been short-listed for the Hennessy/Sunday Tribune Emerging Fiction Writer Award.

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