Anne Cunningham of First Chapter book reviews at work.

This week: a welcome new biography of John McGahern

This week there’s a novel set in a small Italian fishing village, a place of refuge where a woman sets about rebuilding her shattered life. There’s also the latest Wilbur Smith novel, a massive thumper of historical adventure. There’s a most welcome new biography of John McGahern, a tribute to the writer and the man, and finally there’s a story about a couple who take their annual holiday with their friends, not having told those friends that they are no longer a couple! It’s complicated.

Empty Bed Blues, William Wall, New Island, €15.95

Prolific fiction writer and poet, Booker Prize longlister and multiple award winner, William Wall, has lived in Italy on and off for more than half his lifetime. And he has set his latest novel in a small fishing village near Genoa, the place where Kate Holohan escapes to after her husband’s sudden death. Kate has no idea of the amount of debt the husband has amassed, but it just keeps coming at her. And there’s also a mistress Kate didn’t know about. We meet the mistress fleetingly in the first chapter, when she leaves Kate the keys to an Italian hideaway owned by her husband, yet another thing Kate knew nothing about. As the creditors circle like vultures, Kate decides to bunk off to this Ligurian bolthole.

Her new Italian neighbour, Anna Ferrara, is an older lady who was in her time a resistance fighter. She teaches Kate Italian but teaches other things too, life lessons that Kate will need to absorb if she is ever to disentangle herself from the mess back in Ireland. Kate’s a Joycean scholar and so this gorgeous book is peppered with quotes from the old master himself, who spent a significant amount of his lifetime in Italy. Heart-warming and life-affirming are adverbs that seem too trite for this gorgeous literary work. But it’s both. Sorry.

Nemesis, Wilbur Smith, Zaffre, €30

At the time of Wilbur Smith’s death in 2021, he had several completed novels yet to be published and others for which he had sketched the outlines. Other writers have been hired to get those novels past publication and Tom Harper is the writer, or co-writer I guess, on this one, set in the time of the French Revolution and the subsequent Reign of Terror. The story opens in 1794 in Paris, where the guillotine execution of aristocrat Comtesse de Berchy, Catherine Courtney, takes place while her 16-year-old son, Paul Courtney, hides in the crowd and watches it happen. He has promised his mother to ‘stay alive – no matter what’ and forms an attachment with a young girl on his quest to escape the executioner.

In Cape Town in 1806, young Adam Courtney has seen his family destroyed and is hellbent on revenge. His father has given him a family heirloom, a sword, and has sworn Adam to seek justice. Paul Courtney and Adam Courtney are the principal characters in this latest offering from Smith and of course it’s swashbuckling adventure all the way.

Leitrim Observed, Aubrey Malone, Aureus Publishing, €24.99

Seasoned journalist, writer and author Aubrey Malone, who wrote for the Meath Chronicle and many other titles over the years, has produced this detailed, insightful and thorough biography of one of Leitrim’s great heroes, the novelist and short story writer, John McGahern. Beginning with McGahern’s early childhood and taking the reader right through to his death from cancer in 2006 and beyond, Malone writes with authority and precision on the life and work of a man who was to shape so many other Irish writers’ works right up to the present day. McGahern continues to be a kind of a yardstick when it comes to novels written by Irish writers and set in rural Irish backwaters. Sometimes he is arguably equalled. He is, however, never superseded.

McGahern was the eldest son of his family, his mother a schoolteacher and his father a member of the gardaí. His mother died when McGahern was only 10, and the family were left in the care of a distant, emotionally inarticulate and frequently cruel and violent father. His experiences of those years would form the backdrop for his early novels such as The Barracks and The Dark. It’s been said McGahern never really recovered from his father’s cruelty, but like all great writers, he turned adversity into art. Aubrey Malone first met him for an interview in 1990, and although he says in this extensively researched bio that he wasn’t McGahern’s friend, John McGahern did act as a benevolent mentor to Malone from that day on. This book is a fitting tribute to a great and humble man who defined the pulse of Irish writing for an entire generation. Highly recommended.

Happy Place, Emily Henry, Penguin Viking, €13.99

The happy place of the title is a holiday cottage on the coast of Maine, a place where engaged couple Harriet and Wyn have been returning to annually for years, to reunite with old college friends, cook and drink wine, catch up and chill out. Things have a different feel this year, though. The cottage is being sold and this will be the last time the group of friends will be holidaying in this particular charming house. And the other difference is that Harriet and Wyn are no longer engaged! They haven’t yet told their friends of the break-up and now they feel caught. How could they possibly ruin everyone else’s holiday with their sad news?

So they decide to stall their break-up announcement and to spend this last week in the cottage with their best friends as a couple. They’ll tell everyone after the holiday is over. And oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive! Things get complicated with this arrangement, especially for Harriet, as she never wanted the split in the first place. Emily Henry has become one of the big American ‘queens’ of rom com and this bittersweet story – which is also full of fun – is bound to find itself inside many luggage bags on their way to holiday destinations.


Bloomsday (June 16) is becoming a bigger event every year, with celebrations now lasting much longer than a day. This year there are more events than ever, so if you’re on for a trip to the big smoke, check out