Excerpts from Books
My ideas for books come to me in dreams. When I was living in Kraków, teaching, acting and writing my first novel after graduating, I saw Stanislav at the top floor of his apartment in Salwator, remembering the war. So the story of Malinski began. And when I was writing Malinski in a hut at the foot of the Sugarloaf Mountain in Wicklow, with a field of deer behind me and a dark forest beside me, I had a dream about an old woman living in a hut deep in that forest, who had fled from a war. An awful war, in which they burned and gassed those who did not conform…Baba Yaga had resurrected herself in my dream as a Polish refugee who lived in the woods I’d known all my life, in a hut nobody had ever found. She painted pictures…and so the story of The Secret of Pocock Grange began. Not my first encounter with a faery tale, but at last I’d found the genre I loved: Middle Grade fantasy, which captures the twilight age of 9-12, the ‘Coming of Age’ age… everyone from Blue Wing to Frodo to Harry Potter to Red Riding Hood…
Photo by www.nikifeijen.com
Published in the Literary Journal Tales from the Forest, Vaselisa’s War is a retelling of the old tale of Vaselisa and Baba Yaga from Russian folklore. Vaselisa, fleeing a war, finds her refuge is with Baba Yaga…
My mother died of fright the night the first bomb dropped. Under a starry sky, a storm of dust fell through the broken window. But before her last breath, she handed me a doll with two button eyes and a ripped cheek, a thing she said belonged to my Granma, and her Granma, and to her Granma, all the way back.
My father had only one leg: he set out on his crutches to replace her. On the first day, he came back with a chicken, on the second, with a donkey from the paddocks and on the third, with Mrs. Ravisham the Widow and her three daughters, the youngest of whom could cook Goulash. I, on the other hand, could not cook an egg.
Sirens whined, clouds of dust and mortar made the city grow more and more lean. Mother’s gold and pearls were ferreted into the dark streets and taken away by fiendish goblins that make fortunes on peoples misfortunes. Mother’s wedding ring was sacrificed for three stale loaves of bread of which I was given the heels. Our brownstone still stood between clouds of dust and rubble. Refugees huddled in the basements hiding from the steely eyes of the Dictator, who had taken over our perishing city. Maggie and the eldest stepsister grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and said:
“Go to the forest. There is one who keeps a garden kitchen that would feed ten families. You go to her, and bring us back her pumpkins, and the eggs of her chickens, or we will throw you over to the Dictator.”
“That one? She is Baba Yaga. Everyone knows she devours children. Do not make me go!”
“Go then, to the Dictator’s Camp.” they smirked and threw each other wicked looks.
Father lay on the sofa in a delirium, his phantom leg itching wildly. All he had left of Mama was a secret, crumpled photo of their wedding which he kept in his vest. His new wife grew vicious with the rations: she sold herself to a man in a tank for the price of a chicken and roasted it one dark afternoon, while I was locked in the attic staring at the bomber planes in the inky sky, imagining feasts with my doll: venison, Soufflé, pea mint soup, poppyseed cakes and meringues and trifle.
When they asked me to leave and beg food from the Yaga, my heart froze with the fear. What would become of my father and his phantom leg? What of me, in the clutches of a evil crone?
Malinski is about two young brothers in Lvov, Poland, are separated by war. Henryk Malinski, imprisoned by the Nazis with his mother in the family home — the aura, power, and brutality of the Nazis are brilliantly evoked — flees with her ahead of the advancing Soviets, eventually settling in Ireland, where he becomes Henry Foley, a rakish, boozing academic, and spends his life in denial of, and tortured by, the demons of his childhood. Stanislav takes refuge with a devout and deranged aunt in Kraków, where he lives out the decades of his life — a solemn, gray, and humorless character, a human reflection of the communist state. Half a century later, after the fall of communism, Stanislav receives a letter: Henryk/Henry is coming for a visit. Malinski explores the powerful force of human memory, and particularly its complexity. As each character shows us, there is no real escape from memories, or from the past. It is only as the brothers confront each other and their history that they can begin to find peace.
Part One: Stanislav
I am an old man now. I live here, on the top floor of a tower block overlooking the Vistula. SInce the war, since Mama left. Since the Germans came and th Germans left and the Russians came, scarlet red, and left us grey.
I should have died in the war. Instead, I was preserved. Like my bureau, my wingback chair, my rococo clock. Not much left of the manor, but enough. I sometimes press my cheek against the bureau and hear my father scratching on it with his ivory pen. I lean my ear against the little
clock and hear it echo across the wooden floors in Lvov. And I crawl like an insistent louse into the drawers, between the hinges, down the bevelling, where memory has not been erased.
Mama had the chattels sent up to Kraków during the war. I have kept them for her as long as I have kept her pickles in the cellar. Rows of obedient little jars- cherries, onions, herrings, plums that were smuggled past the Third Reich. Do I clutch too much? Mama said I did and that is why I lost her.
The Secret of Pocock Grange
O nly Granma knows the secret at Pocock Grange. Finella, the gangly, skinny misfit, of Ernestown, is about to find out, after she has had dreams about a strange war and a glimmering ring. Granma and Finella go to Pocock Grange that Hallowe’en. Pocock, the old recluse of Pocock Grange gives them the message Baba Yaga has sent a message through the Old Book: send the girl to the Woods of Nowhere. She is needed. There have been wars, terrible wars called the Steel Wars. Thousands of people have been incinerated by the Steel Man, mastermind of the Wars. Not yet ghosts, they are hanging onto life, encamped at the foot of the Moon Mountain.
Every day, the Fire Master razes tracts of forest to the ground, in search of these Lost Souls, whom he will hand over to Steel Man to turn into robots for his Steel Factories. It is Baba Yaga’s job to get them out. She cannot do this without a Dreamer, who negotiates the Passage out of the Woods of Nowhere, back into the world, where Lost Souls can be restored.
Finella needs a Dream Bag. She needs clean, perfect dreams that cross the threshold between Pocock Grange and the Woods of Nowhere. She needs to mix them into a Potion and carry them back across the threshold, to Pocock Grange, where the illustrious alchemist, Dr. Pocock, will finish the work with the Blue Eagle. Then, the Passage will open and the Lost Souls will return.
Finella’s greatest enemy comes from her own blood: her half brother Edmund is the secret ally and, unwittingly, the illegitimate son of the Fire Master, Lord of the Woods, servant of the Steelman. Together they work to ruin Finella’s attempts to save the Passage, and destroy it from the other side. Baba Yaga, at last back in Pocock Grange, proclaims there is one, last chance: there is a Passage in Shambhala, beyond the Northern Mountains, where no human has ever been. It is up to Finella to dream the future of the world.
At the far end of Ernestown, Granma stopped outside those huge, black rusty gates strangled with brambles and ivy. It was Pocock Grange. It was dangerous, it was derelict, it was not a place for children to play. Finella and Edmund were forbidden to play there, ever.
Granma pushed the gates open. The tin can car clunked over potholes in the drive. And then, as they turned the last bend in the dark, tree lined avenue they saw the Grange. It was a large, grey house covered in ivy. Its chimneys were lopsided and the window panes were warped and cracked. It all looked very lean and draughty. One of the stone eagles on the front porch had lost its head and one of the stone lions had a missing paw. Ravens cawed around the eves, cautioning their arrival.
“There are some people, that when you meet them for the first time you feel as if you have always known them.” Granma said, opening the car door.
“Who do you mean, Granma?”
People said that Pocock was a madman. They said he roamed the woods at night, naked. He was seen scratching at his tangle of white hair and howling like a dog in the walled garden. Once he was seen sitting in his armchair on the roof in his pyjamas, reading from an old leather bound book. Others had seen him flinging burning books from the windows. Some said he was a sort of wizard who had lost his witch. Nobody these days went to Pocock Grange, except the odd poacher. But there was still always a light on in the east wing. That was Pocock’s room.
Pocock lived in the Grange with Mrs. McGee, his housekeeper, who guarded the house like a Rottweiler. Pocock’s brother sent her there to take care of Pocock and the Grange after he had become so unwell. She was a meddling old bag and she had Pocock under her thumb.
“She didn’t do a thing about the house, she let it go to ruin, like a sinking ship. She thinks she will inherit the whole of Pocock Grange!” said Granma, as she got out of the car. “Be prepared.”
The doorbell hung out on a spiral, like a demented flower. Granma knocked on the front door. Pieces of grey, peeling paint floated down onto the front porch. Through the warped glass of a front window, they saw the face of a woman with a long, bent nose. She had red grey hair roughly tied back in a bun. She wore a tweed jacket, tightly buttoned to the collar. She had pale, angry blue eyes. Granma knocked again. She scowled, and opened the rattling window, wiping away drapes of old cobwebs.
“Well? What do you want?” said Mrs. McGee.
“Aren’t you going to let us in?” said Granma.
“He’s not here.” Mrs. McGee scowled.
Granma threw her eyes to heaven. She stood back, and cupped her hands around her mouth, and made a long cuckoo sound. A man with long white hair leaned out the window above, ringing a little bell and Mrs. McGee pulled open the old, grey door, glaring at the unwanted guests.
“Thank you, Dame McGee.” said my Granma, yanking Finella inside the door.
Rats scurried across the floor and papers lay scattered everywhere, spilling out of cupboards, down the stairs and waste paper bins. Obviously she did not do a very good job at housekeeping.
“Well, you know where he is.” said Mrs. McGee. Although it was midday, it was very, very dark. Suddenly the grandfather clock struck twelve long, sad dongs that echoed through the cold, damp hall. Granma grabbed a box of matches and lit the candlestick that was standing on the hall table.
“There.” she said. “We’ll need this. Come on!”
“How dare you swipe that!” Mrs. McGee barked from the bottom of the stairs. Granma ignored her, and climbed the stairs, wheezing. They passed a torn portrait of Parson Pocock, and avoided the mice racing over their feet, and down the stairs. Finella saw light at the far end of the corridor coming under the door.
“That’s Pocock’s room.” said Granma. She cupped her hand around the candle flame and made for the door. She knocked. Puc-puc-puc.
“Come in!” They heard his voice. Granma opened the door. Pocock was sitting by a fire in a large velvet armchair, a table in front of him with a half eaten fish and some peas on his plate.
“Good Evening, Ivor.” said Granma.
“I’m not well. I’m never well at this time of year.” he grumbled.
Granma blew out the candle on his table. He still didn’t look up.
“Ivor. It’s Judith. Ivor. I’ve brought the girl. My granddaughter.”
His hand stopped moving the peas about, moving the fork to the side, looking at Finella’s feet, and upwards at her face. He moved back a little in his chair.
“Are you- a ghost?” he said, staring at Finella.
“For Goodness’ sake Ivor, you saw us at the door…” said Granma.
“Oh, but- Mrs. McGee said you’d died in some sort of accident.”
He leaned forward, frowned, and poked Finella’s arm.
“Seems to me you are real. Well?”
“Ivor. She’s had the dream. You know what to do, I don’t.” Granma pushed Finella in front of Pocock.
“You think she’s the one? Those days are gone, Judith. We’ve lost our chance.”
“Forgive me, Ivor.”
“You let us all down, Judith.”
He pulled down Finella’s cardigan sleeve and stretched her shirt over her shoulder, grabbing a magnifying glass from his desk. He peered, for what seemed like a very long time, at her purple birthmark. Finella’s horrible dream started to seep into her mind. Pocock’s eyes widened. He saw the dream, too.
“Maybe you’re right,” he said, “maybe she is the one. But what do we do?”
The door burst open. It was Mrs.McGee, carrying a small silver tray, with a plate of coloured pills and a glass of water on it.
“Mr. Pocock, medicine time!” she sang.
“Nancy- we have guests. Would you- ”
“Just take your pills.” she snapped at him, placing the medicine and glass on the table.
“No, Nancy, we have a little ghost in the house, the one you said had-”
“That’s enough now, come on, just take them. We can’t have you seeing things again!” Mrs. McGee turned around, picked up the tray and left the room, slamming the door behind her. Ignoring the pills, Pocock got out of his chair and slowly walked across the room, reaching for a very large, leather bound book in his bookshelves. He wiped off a thick layer of dust from the jacket cover, and opened it. He passed the book to Finella.
“Read it.” said Granma to Finella. She’d never heard her bark a command like that before.
“I can’t.” she objected. “It’s- in another language.”
“You see, you see?” said Pocock, wistfully. “It can’t be her…”
“Read it!” insisted Granma. Finella’s eyes glanced over the book. She took in the illustrations.
“I see spheres like planets, heads of strange animals, birds, snow peaked mountains, temples, flowers, trees… but the words.. I cannot read the words.”
Granma tutted, impatiently.
“Go on, try again, try one more time.” she said, and went over to the door and turned the key to lock it. Finella looked down at the words again. All at once they began to float and change colour from deep blue to purple, red, gold and saffron… and then back to blue, and silver.
When the borders of ordinary reality dissolve, we find ourselves in the greater realm of myth. Like all the best fantastical & fiction, Siofra O’Donovan’s The Secret of Pocock Grange holds up an enchanted mirror to our own world. A magical read for all ages.
– O. R. Melling, author of ‘The Faerie Chronicles’
Síofra O’Donovan’s new book is powerful, timely and fiercely imaginative. She is an extremely gifted writer -sui generis, muscular yet gentle. This is indeed a fine piece of work.
– Patrick McCabe, author of ‘The Butcher Boy’
This is a fast-moving narrative, powered by terse, wry dialogue and a plot which vividly interweaves fantasy and history. The Secret of Pocock Grange movingly suggests that Lost Souls can be redeemed and that that past is the best evidence we have that a future might exist. Síofra O’Donovan has the gifts of a myth-maker, with an eye for poetic detail.
– Pr. Declan Kiberd, School of English, Drama and Film, UCD, Dublin
The detailed, humorous, and lifelike characterization of the protagonist, her brother and “Granma”. The lively descriptions of these individuals and their relationships to one another are entirely compelling, and I felt myself immediately drawn into the story by these dynamics.
– Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Reviews
The Love Chapter
The Love Chapter the Balcony Project, an Inner City Multi Media Art Project by Rhona Byrne, who commissioned me to write the ‘Love Chapter’. This was recorded by Rose Henderson, and placed into a cube shaped audio box that broadcast different stories and music when activated with the headphone plug. Quite ingenious!
Brid has lived in Bluebell all her life. Her daughter Caer finds a pewter thimble in her flat, which Brid claims is the very vessel that Tristan and Isolde drank the love potion from, in the middle ages.Brid’s mother survived her father’s drinking years with this very thimble: she administered a ‘love cure’ from it that brought luck to desperate, love-weary people in the locality. There is a dark secret behind Brid’s father’s story of a young UCD student, secretly a member of the IRA, who was blown up by a mine on the Naas Road in 1922, who left behind him his fiancé who hanged herself in the Rose Garden.Years later, Brid’s mother tells her the story of a young girl called Isolde from Chapelizod, whose lover was killed by a Black and Tan grenade on the Naas Road. Isolde poisoned herself with ammonia. There is a strange connection between the two stories that reveals a terrible secret in Brid’s family, which revolves around the thimble.
Love, both pure and tragic, is explored in this story that is inspired by the infamous legend of Tristan and Isolde.
Caer found it. The thing my mother had kept enshrined on the mantelpiece like a relic, for as long as I can remember. It was a small, thick pewter thimble with two hearts engraved on the side of it. Caer grabbed it out of the shoe box.
“Throw it out.” She looked at me square, and went to feck it into one of her recycling bags, but I grabbed her at the wrist. She thought she could just march into my house, and dump my ‘junk’ into her boxes and black bags. My things. De-cluttering, she called it. She said I needed more space in the house. But I didn’t.
“That’s pewter.” I said to her. “Do you not know the value of things?“
“Well sell it then.”
“You have no idea.” I said to her, and felt my face fall into a pout, as if my own mother were behind me, moulding it with her cold, thin fingers. There I was, beside my own daughter in the hallway at my chest of drawers. We had been rooting through boxes of postcards and letters, hairpins, buttons, paperclips, mass cards, old beads, speckled photos, the smell of old cake and dust hanging around us.
There was an old whiskey bottle of Laurence’s stashed away behind one of the drawers. He was always a real sneak with his drinking. I kept the dirty old pout on me, the pewter thimble held between my thumb and forefinger, my arm shaking. My own mother had done the very same thing to me. Do you not know what this is, this precious loom? Do you not know that every love story in Inchicore, indeed in all of Dublin, should pay credence to this relic?
“This,” I told my daughter, “is the very thimble that Isolde drank the love potion from, in Temple Bar.”
“Isolde, the one who loved Tristan. They fell madly in love. She was to marry King Mark but she drank the love potion, and then Tristan did, and they fell in love. He was only supposed to deliver her to Mark and then they fell in love.”
“Because they drank a love potion.”
“They fell in love.”
“Then it’s not real love, is it, Ma?”
“That’s the realest love, the love they had. You don’t find that kind of love these days. She was an Irish princess and all, from Ballyfermot, would you believe it.”
“Granny was always on about that. I don’t know, I’m happy enough with himself..” she nodded towards the door. Michael, her boyfriend or whatever he was, was on the way. Granny: full of old stories she was, she didn’t wash the lettuce and left the slugs on it, her cakes never rose, she danced around her sitting room to waltz music, recited Yeats at the top of her voice, and was followed by a little fog of sherry breath. So, her stories were always taken with a pinch of salt by this sensible generation that were in love with contraptions, not people.
“Yes, Granny told the story to you. And this is the very thimble-“ Caer scowled at me, and slammed the lid down on the shoe box she had filled with old Christmas cards.
“You told me already. So put it away Ma, in your shoe box again, and let it sit there until-“
“Until what? Until You bury me in a box?”
“Come on Mam, we haven’t all the time in the world. Michael’s waiting.”
She opened the front door and looked down over the balcony, where Michael had pulled up in his silver car. She had married above her station. God forgive me, but she had. A college educated man. And she a girl from Bluebell, who played in the Gap as a little girl, just as I had.
Michael started to beep. No time. Caer loaded the boxes into the boot, and Michael came out, gallant as always, opening the door for me. I wondered did he notice my blue rinse. I don’t know why I bothered with a rinse, I always said I wouldn’t but the Polish girl in the hairdresser said it would suit me, since I had blue eyes. Did you ever hear such nonsense? An old lady with blue eyes and blue hair. And I have a blue handbag to boot. And somewhere in the backside of some cupboard, I have a pair of blue alligator skin shoes I wore to a dance once, and never wore again. Caer didn’t get her hands on those. Next was the clothes, she said. We’d have to get black sacks, and give them to St. Vincent de Paul.
“Hello Brid, how are you?” said Michael, leaning back from the driver’s seat.
“I’m grand. I can do my shopping myself you know, only Caer said-“
“Ah, Mam,” said Caer, getting into the front seat, “We’re only tryin’ to help.”
“She has me stripped, Michael, of me chattels.”
“It’ll give you lots of space in your cupboards, Brid.” There it was again, that patronizing tone. He’d even done it the day I first met him. He wasn’t even a Dubliner, he was from somewhere in Meath.
“Oh, you’re interested in Newgrange, are you?” he’d said, as if an old lady from Inchicore couldn’t be. He was finishing a degree in archaeology at the time. He didn’t know who my mother was. He didn’t know a thing about us, because Caer didn’t care who she was or where she was from, as long as she could get out of Bluebell, and into Ireland’s new swirl of long silver cars and fancy phones that never shut up beeping.
“For what?” I muttered in the back of the car, fogging up the window with my breath. “What would I want space for?”
Caer had said he was an expert, that he was going to be a great archaeologist, but he became a clerk, in the end, in an insurance company, at the top of one of those buildings around Fleet Street. He was a nice man, but he knew nothing about Newgrange. He’d never even heard of Angus Og, whose home it was.
Angus, and his harp of red gold strings, the sound of them sweeter than all music under the sky, two birds over the harp, playing on it. Angus, he who foretold things that put drunkeness on your wits.
So my mother told me. Another God in her Army she recruited for her strange little rituals. Angus, our God of love.
We came into Inchicore Vaillage, where Caer said there was a new Tesco, so we could buy everything in the one shop. The name Inchicore, Inchicore, kept dancing in my ears as I closed my eyes to stop the carsickness. I saw my father, whose eyes I had, I heard him telling me about the name of the place. The Island of Berries, he said. There we were, pulling up outside Tesco in the Island of Berries. Berries. I hooked a berry on a thread. There, my mother’s quivering voice in her favourite poem, the Song of Wandering Angus. I could see her green eyes fixed on my father as she recited the poem from her hardback Yeats’ Collection, full of little yellow stains and dogears and mascara smears.
Michael and Caer bickered at each other over parking spaces. He steered the car into a space near the dry cleaner’s, and he stepped out to open the door for the old blue lady, who got out on her doddery legs, and followed her daughter into the blue supermarket. The old blue lady from Bluebell.
“God Mam, isn’t it cold?”
“Tis. I was going to say to Michael, that Inchicore means Island of Berries. Did you know that? It’s the real name for it. Your grandfather used to tell me that. Did you know that?”
“No Mam. Now do you need washing powder?”
“I don’t know.”
“Ah Mam, where’s your list?”
“I left it on the table.”
”Jesus! We’ll be here all night!”
“Bread, milk and ham. What else would I need? Oh and eggs. Don’t be fussing. Its grand. Did you know Inchicore meant Island of Berries?”
“Mam, would you stop on about berries. We need to shop. Michael’s waiting.”
“Michael’s always waiting.”
“Mam!” she stamped her foot and frowned and put her bottom lip out at me.
We all had the same pout.
“So what will you do with that thimble after my funeral?”
“Ah for God’s sake!”
“I mean it.”
I never knew if I should believe my own mother: as if it was the very vessel Tristan and Isolde drank from, sure how could it be? I used to throw my eyes to heaven, too. And here I was, doing the very same thing to my own daughter. She picked up a huge box of Persil Automatic, and put it in the basket. I didn’t even need it. I had hardly any clothes to wash, and soon I’d have even less, with my cupboards gutted to make ‘space.’ What in the name of God good was that going to do for me? I wanted to keep my blouses and my suits, I didn’t care if they’d gone limp and pale, or if a moth had eaten holes in it. I wanted to remember some of the good days with Larry, because God knows there weren’t many.