The Woodcutter and His Family by Frank McGuinness

Reviewed by Rob Spence

It’s startling to note that there’s more secondary writing about James Joyce than there is about Shakespeare. He must be the most investigated, elucidated, glossed and theorized author in the English language. His standing as a literary giant, and, I think, the fact that so much of his output was autobiographical, has drawn other writers into fictionalising his life. It’s a difficult trick to pull off, because by evoking him, the writer inevitably invites comparison with Joyce’s own work, and that is likely to reflect poorly on anyone who tries to take on the master. But this genre, where a famous figure – often a writer, it seems – is portrayed in fictional terms, is one that seems to be increasingly popular. Julian Barnes is perhaps the modern pioneer, in Flaubert’s Parrot and Arthur and George. David Lodge has made it the main point of his late career, in novels featuring Henry James and H.G. Wells.

Frank McGuinness, best known as a prolific and highly-regarded playwright, has turned to the matter of Joyce’s life for his second novel.  The notional setting is Zurich in January 1941, where the exiled writer lies dying, and the voices of his family echo around him. McGuinness shies away from explicitly presenting the ‘real’ Joyce and his family: here, the writer is “Himself” and Nora, the wife, becomes Bertha. The children, Giorgio and Lucia, are renamed Archie and Beatrice. I’m not sure what this achieves, other than underlining the notion that, as in Joyce’s work, the reader will always be challenged to rethink the status of the narrative. It’s a distancing device that also celebrates the fictionality of the process.

The structure of The Woodcutter and His Family – and that enigmatic title is not explained until near the end – is deceptively simple. Each of the central characters is given a chapter in their own voice, in which they examine their relationship to the always unnamed father, before Himself has (almost) the final say. McGuinness must have been tempted to use some of Joyce’s stylistic flourishes, but he does not bend grammar and syntax anything like as much as Joyce did, although there are some noticeable parallels. The monologues of the wife and children are written in a loose, colloquial style, veering towards Joyce’s stream of consciousness, but remaining relatively lucid and controlled. Here is Bertha, early in the novel, reflecting on her mother:

Am I not the black pity of a woman? How often did I hear my own mother chant that refrain? She then would add that the cause of all grief in her life was her reluctance to become a nun, and if she had a chance to relive the days of her existence, then that’s the path she would have followed – to the convent, best of food, best of accommodation, work about the house all done for you as you prayed the knees off yourself, and what was best of all? No men. Absolutely no men to bother you or to need minding. Who could not be happy – delirious even—with such a set up?

But what about us Mama? What would have become of your children? If you’d become a nun, where would we be? In heaven, she said, annoying the hell out of the angels and the saints, as you annoy me on earth.

McGuinness is excellent at evoking the voice of his characters, and in distinguishing between them. The reader is quickly immersed in their worlds, exploring the raw earthiness of Bertha, the strangely fractured world of Beatrice, and the rueful self-deprecation of Archie. Dominating all, is, of course, the figure of the dying writer, who takes centre-stage in the final chapters.

McGuinness has managed here to present something very Joycean but without a hint of pastiche. The subject matter could not be more sombre, since death is at the heart of the narrative, but as in Joyce, the darkest of topics is often lightened with humour. What emerges from these monologues is a complex vision of the vicissitudes of life, the hardships and joys that it entails. It is an engrossing, immersive read, and the reader can believe in this version of Joyce’s family as much as the official one.

Rob Spence’s home on the web is robspence.org.uk or find him on Twitter @spencro

Frank McGuinness, The Woodcutter and His Family (Brandon, 2017.) 978-1847179074,  223pp., hardback.

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