‘Holding’, Graham Norton

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I picked this up on a recent trip to West Cork because I was only dying to read about the village in the book I thought would be only too familiar – and I was right.

This book has been flying off the shelves and I’m yet to meet someone who didn’t enjoy it. It’s all the more enjoyable still for anyone who has been to West Cork and will recognise the surroundings and inhabitants.

Most of us will probably agree that reading about somewhere you know is twice the fun!

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It’s been flying off the shelves in every corner of Ireland and this week won The Irish Independent Popular Fiction Book of the Year at the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards – so what’s so great about Graham Norton’s debut fiction novel?

Like his chat show and his wine, Holding is sure to please the masses as a well-written and charming Agatha Christie meets Maeve Binchy-type mystery set in a rural Irish village.

In the world of fiction, so many celebrity novelists publish books that later populate bargain bins and the shelves of charity shops around the country, but anyone expecting a slapdash effort from Norton will be pleasantly surprised.

Set in Duneen, in a corner of Ireland anyone familiar with West Cork will quickly recognise, the novel is a completely authentic portrayal of the area and those who populate it. We are first introduced to PJ Collins, a solitary rural Garda Sergeant who has always been held back by the fact of his own obesity.

Sergeant Collins may be one of the first pitiable figures we meet in Duneen, but he is certainly not the last. He is a typical one-man Garda operation for whom excitement means controlling traffic for the local village fete, but he’s not alone – many of the inhabitants of the village suffer lives of quiet melancholy, not least local alcoholic Bríd Riordan and Evelyn Ross, who has never managed to find happiness since the death of her parents.

Norton uses Garda Collins as the perfect lens through which to first introduce the reader to Duneen. There’s no need to suffer through the clichéd portrait of rural Ireland, so often depicted as a romantic sanctuary far away from big-city life.

Instead, we are told that Duneen is a place where time ‘seeps’ instead of passing by and little much seems to entertain inhabitants other than curtain twitching and gossiping. Our focus is on the small village but as are the residents, the reader is always aware of the bigger world beyond Duneen, including the metropolis of Cork City.

Norton’s first hand experience of life in West Cork and his move to the bright lights of London make this novel all the more interesting. With very few modern details, the book seems at once old-fashioned and quaint, with plenty of charm. However, it’s also a place with a stifling atmosphere, where the main characters seem unhappy and uninspired to change their lives.

A group of builders developing farmland for housing seems at first just a passing comment on the state of the nation – that is, until the discovery of human bones found by those same builders prompts Sergeant Collins into action for the first time since he graduated from Templemore.

He is suddenly plunged into a ‘whodunnit’ mystery, the type which rocks any small village. Sergeant Collins suddenly has to deal with the curiosity of locals and visits from top Garda brass as well as trying to figure out how exactly the bones came to rest in Duneen so many years ago.

The discovery spurs Duneen into action, giving Norton free rein to develop the rich characters, their hopes and their desires and ultimately their fears in what is one of the strongest attributes of the book.

This novel is sure to become even more popular in the run up to Christmas, where many will be on the couch next to the fire in a village not entirely unlike Duneen.

Anyone hoping for stunning literary fiction should steer clear, but this is a thoughtful and enjoyable crowd pleaser that’s certainly worthy of a spot on the bookshelf.

 

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