Recent Reviews for Gerald Hansen
An Embarrassment of Riches (Book) - 4/10/2008 4:59:46 PM|
I haven't read a novel like this in quite a while. An Embarrassment of Riches is a true black comedy, filled with richly-drawn characters that are both larger than life and small minded at the same time. The novel takes place entirely in the city of Derry (or Londonderry, depending on your religion - you'll understand that statement after reading the book), Ireland, right around the turn of this century. It concerns the intertwined families of two sisters, one of whom, having recently won the Irish National Lottery, is relatively well off - and the other, who is poor, uneducated, and nasty.
The style reminds me very much of the works of Hubert Selby, particularly Last Exit to Brooklyn and Requiem for a Dream. With perhaps a bit of James Joyce thrown in there as well. Hansen writes much of the character's dialogue directly in the dialect of the area, using a technique honed by Mark Twain in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. As such, it can sometimes be difficult to understand exactly what is being said... but one of the characters is conveniently married to an American, who, near the beginning of the novel, shares his "Derry Speak Dictionary". I found myself referring often to this two-page spread of Irish slang during the course of the book.
In fact, the city of Derry itself is probably the most important character in the book. It is almost as much a part of this book as Los Angeles is a part of Raymond Chandler's works. Jed Barnett, the sole American in the book, sums it up well:
"You dragged me off to this godforsaken hellhole where I can barely understand what anybody says, where the sun shines three days a year, where the city center is crawling with thugs wielding broken bottles after dark so I have to do all my drinking during the day, where the dollar's so weak against the pound my retirement checks disappear before they're even cashed."
LIke most great literary comedies (A Confederacy of Dunces, anyone?), the real charm and power lies in the interactions between rich, larger than life characters. An Embarrassment of Riches is no exception:
Ursula Barnett - Mid-fifties Irish woman, married to an American Navy man, both now retired and living in Londonderry, Ireland. She recently won 1 million pounds in the Irish lottery. She has a hot temper, but of all her family, she's probably the kindest person. She has no idea how truly vile and evil most of her family really is.
Fionnnuala Flood - Ursula's sister. A conniving, trashy, filthy woman who thinks only of how she can lie, cheat, and steal her way through life. She's convinced her sister owes her and her entire brood a free ride, and she's determined to do anything she can to get it. Her children are playthings in her theater of cruelty.
Jed Barnett - Ursula's "Yank" husband, a retired Navy man who has reluctantly settled with his wife in Londonderry. He hates the city, hates the country, and wants nothing except to leave it and return home to Wisconsin. Only his love for Ursula keeps him here, a prisoner in a place he wants no part of. Unbeknownst to Ursula, he has long ago gambled away all their lottery winnings.
Dymphna Flood - The 18-year-old daughter of Fionnuala. Pregnant out of wedlock (and by a Protestant no less!), working at a low-end job just enough to keep the welfare office happy, Dymphna is just as scheming as her mother, but only half as intelligent.
Paidrag Flood - Fionnuala's 10-year-old son. Destined to become a drug dealer like his brothers, Paidrag has already learned the ins and outs of making petrol bombs to lob at his relatives, confident that the police will never arrest a tiny boy like himself.
Siofra Flood - 8-year-old daugher of Fionnuala, who is studying for her communion under her Aunt Ursula' tutelage. However, she's in it only for the fashion accessories: Siofra dreams of having the perfect dress to impress her friends with. And she's going to gather the money by assisting her brother in selling his "disco sweeties", Ecstasy. Yes, she is an eight-year-old drug dealer.
Eoin Flood - 17-year-old son of Fionnuala, a drug dealer. He's the current apple of his mother's eye, since he's the main breadwinner in the family at the moment.
And these are just the main characters. There's also the addled Grandmother, the boss at the horrible little retail shop, the estranged sister from Hawaii, the trashy co-workers, the drunken husband, and a passel of ex-IRA goons to boot. Set this in a run-down, burnt-out Irish city that all the good parts of the 20th century seem to have passed by, mix with tons of ridiculous religious prejudice and greed, shake, stir and serve. The result is An Embarrassment of Riches.
The last 50 pages of this book are classic, I can't-stop-reading literature. Yes, Siofra does get her communion. And yes, all the disparate threads of plot and character do all come together at the end. And yes, all the questions about Ursula's past with the IRA are answered truthfully, if surprisingly. And yes, you will laugh until your sides hurt.
Sure I'm biased. So what - I know a good book when I read it. And this... is a very, very good book. I hope never in my life to find myself in Londonderry, Ireland - with the sole exception of when I re-read this novel. Click on over to Amazon, demand a copy from your local bookseller, download it to your e-book reader, whichever way works for you - but whatever way you do it, read An Embarrassment of Riches.
An Embarrassment of Riches (Book) - 4/10/2008 3:38:26 PM
Reviewed by Olivera Baumgartner-Jackson for Reader Views (3/08)
Gerald Hansen’s “An Embarrassment of Riches” is a fast-paced, very amusing read. Set in the Irish town of Derry (or Londonderry, depending on your faith…) and generously colored with the local language as well as numerous very contemporary issues, this novel will take you on a wild ride.
Ursula Barnett and her husband Jed recently won the lottery, so they decided to retire to Derry. Ursula tried very hard to make things better for her family, but all of those acts are interpreted by her sister-in-law, Fionnuala, as being directed against them. Fionnuala herself is a wretched person – married to a drunk, working two jobs and trying to raise an assortment of seven ruffians. Perennially behind with her bills and always looking at how to get more money out of Ursula; Fionnuala decided to go for the jugular this time. With family members being pitted against each other, many supposed secrets are revealed and the results are not always predictable. Will Siofra manage to get the money for her dream First Communion dress? Who’s the father of Dymphna’s baby? Where is Eoin getting all that money from? And where did Ursula’s money disappear?
Gerald Hansen’s writing is smooth and appealing. With a cast of incredibly amusing, if not always charming characters, this book feels like a cross between a roller-coaster and a carousel. The plot moves on very quickly and it would be impossible not to get drawn in. The succession of wild events hitting both Ursula’s and Fionnuala’s families will keep the reader amused and slightly dazed. There are some truly priceless images in the story; among which the one of Siofra selling discount-priced “disco sweeties” to her First Communion companions is decidedly my favorite. The Derry-speak used liberally throughout the story adds depth and richness to the story, yet it can make for slightly tedious reading at times. Although Gerald Hansen did supply a “Derry-speak Dictionary,” there are passages that are difficult to read for non-Derry speakers.
The engaging and oftentimes hilarious story of a family torn apart because of money matters should have a broad appeal. I am certain that most of us will recognize some of our own family members in the characters of this black comedy; or at least see some familiar traits. While wildly amusing, this tale should also make you think of some important life issues, so I’d consider the time spent reading "An Embarrassment of Riches” well spent.