Review: Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan


By Ruth Gilligan
Atlantic, £12.99

Ruth Gilligan has turned on its head the old adage that a novelist should write about what he or she knows. Instead, she has confidently written about what she wanted to know - namely, the history and experience of Jews living in Ireland.

This takes some chutzpah because not only is she not Jewish but she also dares to emulate James Joyce by referencing aspects of Finnegan's Wake. Thankfully, the result is a success.

Criss-crossing from the early 20th century, via the 1950s, to the present day, it tells three different stories within the main theme. Pertinently perhaps, three central characters are writers attempting to find a voice in the face of obstacles.

The first strand tells the tale of the Goldberg family, emigrants from Lithuania in 1901 to where they believe is New York, but is actually and accidentally Cork, in Ireland. It follows the fortunes of Ruth, whose father Moshe is a man full of ideas and dreaming of a life as a successful playwright.

The second involves Shem, who gave up speaking on his barmitzvah but who is consumed by words, writing secretly in the institution where he is incarcerated in the 1950s.

There, he develops an unlikely friendship with another inmate, Alf, who dictates his memoirs furtively to Shem. Though Joycean scholars may frown at the allusion to Finnegan's Wake, Gilligan throws light on the untold stories of Irish Jews who were locked away and, for the most part, prevented from telling their stories.

The final piece, set in present-day London, finds Aisling, an Irish obituary writer, presented with the dilemma of whether or not to convert to Judaism in order to marry her partner, an unobservant Jew tied to traditions by the demands of his family. Gilligan has said that Aisling became a doppel-ganger for her when writing this book, "the curious outsider, looking in; fascinated, but wary always of crossing the line; of stepping where she didn't belong".

Gilligan was determined to expand her world and she says her research for the book involved years of reading, interviewing, travelling and learning:

"I spent time all around Cork and Dublin, meeting countless members of the depleting Jewish population. I went to Israel and hung out with the Irish population there, listening to their stories; immersing myself in their unfamiliar narratives". (It is a pity, then, that the book seems not to carry any personal acknowledgement to those who helped her.)

Though a little heavy-handed with coincidence at times, Gilligan mostly has a firm grip on her material and deals thoughtfully and sensitively with issues of displacement, antisemitism, historical abuse and the sense of belonging. She is a gifted storyteller, with a rhythm and poetry to her writing reminiscent of Anne Enright.

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