Hazel McHaffie

Unsung masterpieces

With all the recent hype over the Man Booker prize it seems fitting to pause a moment and pay homage to authors whose work never wins the acclaim it deserves. I’m sure you, like me, have your own favourites – books that you personally love but the critics trash; unsung treasures discovered in a serendipidous way; gems that have changed the course of your thinking.

I’d love to start a campaign to get recognition for superb authors whose publishers don’t have a sufficiently robust marketing department or enough cash to promote their work effectively. But given current time constraints and resources maybe I’ll start small, and blog about it.

Some time ago a friend of mine was getting rid of a stash of books in readiness for moving house. I was only too happy to assist her in the task by squeezing a few of hers between the thousands I already own. Amongst her motley collection I found Niall Williams Four Letters of Love. I’d never even heard of Williams, an Irish writer, but the blurb intrigued me. And it was going begging. Well … what a delight lay in store. The writing is lyrical, evoking the lives, lores and loves of families living on an Irish island. Poetry in prose. To outline the plot would be to miss the whole point of this book, and I hate spoilers. But essentially it’s the story of two young people, Isabel Gore and Nicholas Coughlan, who are destined to love each other.

There is a meaning; there is a sense to everything,’ Nicholas Cougan thinks as, against all odds, he waits for his love to come to him. And somehow in this magical tale of romance and superstition, of profound wisdom and tragedy, one can suspend disbelief: dead people appear and are influencing lives; Irish mothers can smell and feel emotions in strangers; people are merely puppets in the play already written by a divine hand. You have to lose yourself in it to value it to the full. Try it and see.

And then there’s a book which has remained on my top ten list ever since I found it many years ago whilst browsing in a second-hand book shop in Saltash, looking for something to while away a journey from Cornwall to Scotland: Sacred and Profane by Marcelle Bernstein. The entire country flew by unnoticed. There are three main characters in the story: a nun, a prisoner, and a priest … sounds like a joke waiting for a punchline, doesn’t it? But this is not a humorous book; rather it deals with dark emotion and repressed drives, with lots of moral questions remaining to haunt you. (Well, you know what a sucker I am for an ethical dilemma!) All three characters are very well drawn, and the complex interweaving of their stories is totally gripping, culminating in an astonishing denouement. How come this masterpiece is virtually unknown?

If you haven’t read them, I recommend you do. And as part of this crusade to promote such neglected masterpieces, do you have any you’d like to share? Here’s your chance to strike a blow for your personal style of genius.

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2 Responses to “Unsung masterpieces”

  • Clare says:

    Following your recommendation, I requested Niall Williams’ “Four Letters Of Love” from the library and recently finished it.

    What a beautifully crafted book – and what a delight to experience. This wasn’t about reading a plot but living in the world and landscape that Williams’ created. Moving, entrancing and utterly absorbing – you can’t help but lose yourself in it.

    I had never come across Williams’ work before – thank you so much for the recommendation. I rarely re-read books these days – there are just too many still on my to-read list – but this is going to be an exception.

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