||Oct 9, 2007
A former IRA collaborator wants to reconcile with her estranged family, but after winning the lottery, she finds making up a murderous task in this quirky novel.
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An Embarrassment Of Riches
When Ursula Barnett and her husband Jed win the Irish lottery, they think their troubles are over. But they are just beginning. Ursula coerces her Yank husband to retire in her hometown of Derry, Northern Ireland, hoping to atone for her youthful sins as a collaborator with the IRA in the 1970s. At the first sniff of Ursula’s lotto win, however, her chronically greedy sister-in-law Fionnuala Flood rallies the family against Ursula.
Fionnuala’s life is a misery. She is married to a boozing fish-packing plant worker and raising seven seedy hooligans, from a convict son to an eight-year-old devil-daughter who will resort to desperate mesaures to secure the perfect Holy Communion gown. Between two part-time jobs, Fionnuala still finds the energy to put into motion plans which pit husbands against wives, daughters against mothers, the lawless against the law and Fionnuala against anyone fool enough to cross her path.Family saga and black comedy, love story and courtroom drama, An Embarrassment of Riches will take you on a journey to Northern Ireland and beyond, where Protestants and Catholics wage battle daily, and where crossing family with finance leads to heartache
She thought she would want for nothing after that bloody win. She’d clearly been deranged. In the dock of Her Majesty’s Magistrate’s Court, Ursula Barnett gripped the railing, her eggplant-hued bob a shambles, a woman on the wrong side of both fifty and, if her family had their say, a row of prison bars. She withered under the rows of glinting eyes in the public gallery.
Attempted manslaughter of a minor? Reckless endangerment? Whichever verdict was arrived at, those creatures heaved into the benches would be her moral judges, if not her legal jury.
Her husband Jed was the only solace, giving a watery thumbs up and a weary smile. These were cut short as the usher barked at him to remove his cowboy hat. Ursula loved Jed dearly and appreciated his support, but the sound of his muttered apologies in that Wisconsin accent made her cringe. She suddenly hated his faded goatee, his frail body in that checkered polyester blazer, his Buddy Holly specs and, most of all, she hated him for picking those damn lottery numbers six months earlier.
The courtroom door clattered open, and Ursula flinched as in Fionnuala and Paddy tramped, a pair of hardened hooligans in bargain bin rags. They claimed their place in the public seats, settling themselves with grand self-importance and eyes bleary from the previous night’s drink, their looks letting Ursula know there would be hell to pay. The door burst open again and an unruly mob of wanes—as children were called in that part of the land—trawled in after their parents, sniggering as they took their seats and opening packs of sweets they had smuggled in past the security guard.
“Merciful Jesus,” Ursula muttered. She could hold her tongue no longer. She tapped her solicitor on the back. Ms. Murphy turned and glared.
“What in the name of God,” Ursula hissed, “is them wanes doing parading into the courtroom? I thought wanes wasn’t allowed?”
Ms. Murphy started. Surely her client knew the Northern Irish made rules only to break them?
“Technically, yes,” Ms. Murphy admitted.
“What’s that meant to mean, for the love of Christ?”
“I can ask the clerk to remove them from the court, if you feel they will affect your testimony, if their presence is intimidating or threatening in any way.”
Her tone implied she thought this unlikely; a woman of Ursula’s worldly experience terrified of wee creatures aged six, eight, and eleven.
“That wane there is me accuser, but!” Ursula said, nodding to Padraig, who was beaming like a superstar and scoffing down Jelly Babies.
The eyes of the court usher warned them to be still. Ms. Murphy nodded in his direction, and her look appealed to Ursula’s sense of compassion.
Ursula leaned back into the dock, spiraling into helplessness and frustration. All the rules were being bent, except those to which she herself were being held. The whole ridiculous world had gone mad, and she and her handbag were expected to be answerable for everything.
Three justices of the peace filed in. A trio of Orange Protestants, no doubt, shipped over from Manchester. As they took their places behind the raised bench, Ursula could only hope their privileged Proddy educations would allow them to see sense: she was the injured party in all of this.
“Hear ye, hear ye, all rise, the court is now in session,” the clerk called out. “This is case number 30251, Flood Vs. Barnett, the honorable Magistrates Sterling, Hope and Caldwell presiding.”
Ursula tensed at the snickering from the public gallery. It was all passing before her in a blur—the magistrates settling and silent, their eyes passing judgment; the solicitor for that pack of hooligans droning on; the whine of her own solicitor piercing the air in response; Mrs. Feeney swanning up to the stand, face hardened, wooly cardigan buttoned; the Holy Book placed before her; the raising of her right hand; Do you affirm that the evidence you are about to give…
Ursula struggled to comprehend how she had arrived at this crucifixion. She had been cast out of the family, a disgrace, after that shameful business with the IRA in 1973, it was true, but hadn’t a lifetime spent clawing back their trust and affection been penance enough?
“That heartless bitch,” Mrs. Feeney growled, a finger singling Ursula out, “has a lot to answer for!”
Apparently not. When it came to love or money, money won out every time.
“Crime of malice!” Mrs. Feeney roared.
The magistrates, the multitude of faces in the public hall, all regarded her with contempt. Ursula gripped the handrail of the dock and braced herself for the worst.
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Reader Reviews for "An Embarrassment of Riches"
|Reviewed by Jon Henderson
|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.
|Reviewed by Gerald Hansen
|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.