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Books

'Maeve's Times' Collects Five Decades of Observation by an Astute Irish Writer

Maeve Binchy's good-natured voice challenges Irish prejudice or piety on behalf of those who have been shut out or held down.


Maeve's Times: In Her Own Words

Publisher: Knopf
Length: 400 pages
Author: Maeve Binchy
Price: $26.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-10
Amazon

Maeve Binchy's many novels have gained her a wide readership in and beyond Ireland. A teacher turned writer, she wrote more prolifically than many Irish storytellers; she produced bestsellers. The US book jacket, for this anthology of her Irish Times columns over five decades, sketches her perspective as imagined by at least some of her readers abroad: pastel colors, a cat, a cup of tea, a neatly stacked newspaper, pen and notebook, all in an orderly room overlooking an idealized market town's high street (no logos, no litter, no graffiti, no rain, no cars at all).

But the reality, as this journalism (collected by Róisín Ingle, introduced by her husband, Gordon Snell) documents, reveals Binchy's sharp ear. She conveyed clearly the inner troubles hidden and then confessed or betrayed by everyday people living behind those sunny town facades. Her eye, in turn, focuses upon the contradictions between outward propriety and intimate shame, as many of those, mostly women like herself, whom she interviews or dramatizes betray their increasingly tense frustrations with their homeland's pious submission to Church, State, and Da.

As she explains, she writes as she speaks. In her steady prose, without fuss or fancy, I hear my own Irish mother on the page, for both express themselves candidly. Women born as they were 70-odd years ago in Ireland faced barriers against advancement; Binchy speaks for those who broke free of the Irish stranglehold. She began as feminism roused many, starting her stint after she returned from a kibbutz (where she lapsed from her faith), as Women's Editor for the Times in 1968.

Her entries begin with pleasant but often lightweight wit. A few years in, she creates three vignettes titled "Women Are Fools". Each tells, as her fiction might, the tale of someone who sins. But to the women themselves, each may feel, as filtered through Binchy's sympathetic portrayal, that perhaps they are not sinners but merely flawed, not to be cast aside by the Church or abandoned in a State where divorce and contraception continued to be outlawed. An unwanted child, promiscuity, infidelity, and marital breakdown are treated without sentiment, but with insight and understanding.

She continued to analyze her homeland with the same concern for the telling detail to make her point. Although she spent much of the '70s as the London editor for the newspaper, she returned to Ireland frequently. This slight distance, combined with familiarity, enlivened her observations, such as of a seaside resort. "Out in Killiney I saw people walking Afghan hounds which, I feel, must be a sign of prosperity, but I am assured that's it's just the same person with the same hound that I keep seeing."

In Britain, she found contrasts. "Here the parks are filled with children, in London they are filled with the old. In Dublin you hold a supermarket door open for a mother with a pram, in London for an elderly couple with a basket on wheels." She balances her sentences neatly, and she narrates briskly.

Her range may surprise those expecting only domestic drama or casual comments. In 1980, she meets Samuel Beckett, who by 74 still looks 54, if by then more like a Frenchman than an Irishman to her. "He has spikey hair which looks as if he had just washed it or had made an unsuccessful attempt to do a Brylcreem job on it and given up halfway through. He has long narrow fingers, and the lines around his eyes go out in a fan, from years of smiling rather than years of intense brooding." So begins her encounter, and she shares her respect and camaraderie for the playwright, examining him carefully.

She does the same for Margaret Thatcher, 15 years her senior, under whose administration she lived in Britain for many years. In 1986, Binchy ponders Thatcher's bid for a third term as Prime Minister. "When people praise Thatcher, and many, many do every day, they praise her not at all for anything to do with being a woman. And perhaps that is her greatest achievement. She has almost single-handedly banished the notion that it is somehow unusual or special for a woman to be able to do anything. For that, if nothing else, women in the future may thank her." This statement deploys Binchy's command of tone and control over her style masterfully, and proves her journalistic skill.

Yet not all is somber. Being Irish, she can spin a lively tale. In an "provincial town", a man sets up his office for the day in a hotel, in the ladies' cloakroom. He has no idea where he has settled down. When Binchy tells him, we see his reaction. "He stood up like a man who had been shot in the back in a film and was about to stagger all about the set before collapsing. 'I don't believe you,' he said."

Many who mourned her death in 2012 praised Binchy's generosity towards other writers as well as ordinary folks. Her good-natured voice, as revealed in Maeve's Times: In Her Own Words, does not shirk criticism, but manages, as the Thatcher profile demonstrates, to challenge prejudice or piety on behalf of those who have been shut out or held down. She does this without scolding or posturing, although a 1992 entry welcoming the return of dullness after Thatcher's delayed exit is more bitter.

Some of this goes on too long. Sitting next to a garrulous teller, no matter how fluent, a listener needs a break. So with a reader. These essays may be better sampled as they originally appeared, one at a time. I would find them in The Irish Times, where I wondered how she managed to produce so many novels, stories, and articles with seeming ease. She does not tell us here the pace or the cost, but she seems to have lived happily and delighted in her career. Certain Irish authors relegated to a small press backlist or a poetry seminar's syllabus may envy her promotion through Oprah's Book Club.

Trained as an historian, from a well-educated suburban Dublin family, Binchy found success apart from academia, and she spoke to those who saw in her writing a concern for dignity and decency. She calls out her countrymen and women for stereotyped fecklessness, and she holds them accountable.

Avoiding euphemism while remaining polite, she encourages her readers to confront death without cant, and to support those whose weakness or failures have led them to be too harshly condemned. Abortion, heartbreak, aging, and even a tacit case of murder "before I knew that people called things by different names" occur. By the '90s, Binchy witnesses a much-changed Ireland, one which her generation had waited for. Traffic clogs Dublin, while coffee brews everywhere. But Binchy, who has "taken charge of her life" ever since she quit teaching and began writing, enjoys holidays and counsels readers who share her "senior moments".

Her energy subsides, naturally, by the '00s. Her novels are made into films, her portrait is made for the National Gallery of Ireland, and she lists ten things never to say to someone with arthritis as one of her final submissions. One of her last entries borrows a phrase from another creative spirit in his autumnal years, Woody Allen: "I'm so mellow I'm almost rotten." While the range of her earlier entries narrows by the conclusion of this anthology, no one can chide Binchy for showing her readers how to cherish all one can from a peaceful life.

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