Nationality: Irish. Born: Dublin, 1948. Education: Convent schools in Dublin. Family: Married Alan Wilkes in 1970. Career: editor, Young Woman, Dublin, 1969-71; staff feature writer, Dublin Evening Press, 1973-78; editor, Image, Dublin, 1981-84. Regular book reviewer and feature writer for Sunday Times, London, Irish Times, Dublin, Evening Standard, London, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, London, Cosmopolitan, Vogue, and Good Housekeeping. Lives in Kilbride, County Wicklow. Awards: Journalist of the Year award, 1973. Agent: Gill Coleridge, Rogers Coleridge and White Ltd., 20 Powis Mews, London W11 1JN, England.
Holy Pictures. London, Hamish Hamilton, and New York, Summit, 1983.
Last Resorts. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1984; New York, Summit, 1986.
Black Baby. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1988; New York, Doubleday, 1989.
Home Rule. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1993; as 11 Edward Street, New York, Doubleday, 1994.
Room for a Single Lady. London, Little, Brown, 1997.
A Nail on the Head. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1983; New York, Penguin, 1985.
Concerning Virgins. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1989.
That Bad Woman. London, Little Brown, 1995.
Another Family Christmas: A Collection of Short Stories. Dublin, Poolbeg, 1997.
The Literary Companion to Cats. London, Sinclair Stevenson, 1994.
Editor, The Agony and the God, Literary Essays. London and NewYork, Penguin, 1994.
Contributor, Ladies' Night at Finbar's Hotel, edited by DermotBolger. New York, Harcourt, 2000.*
Clare Boylan comments:
My novels deal with the confrontative and revelatory nature of sexual relationships, the anarchy of innocence, and the difference between male and female morality. In my novels the random and exploitative nature of maternal love is a recurrent theme. Overall, there is the sense of a wonderful life in which the characters are not equipped to participate and the dark motifs are explored through humor and irony.* * *
The novels and stories of Clare Boylan follow the search of lonely individuals for love and fulfillment in a hostile environment. Events are often viewed through the eyes of children or the elderly, each intimidated by an increasingly threatening world. Her writing embraces all aspects of life from the comic and grotesque to the tragic, and displays a rare ability to approach routine situations from unexpected angles. In Holy Pictures the society of adults dominates. To Nan and Mary, growing up in Dublin in 1925, the world of their elders is marked by rules specifically designed to thwart the dreams of the young, its rigidity typified by the old-fashioned corset produced in their father's factory. Nan, coming painfully to adolescence in a strict convent school, is lured by the dream-world of the cinema and the cutout pictures of movie stars she worships at a distance. She and Mary long to escape the drab life allocated to them, glimpses of freedom coming only briefly as in Nan's dance as the fairy at a school concert. "She was a star, elevated as the lovely ladies of America who wore coatees of mink and ermine and walked on spirals of celestial stairs." Such dreams break down before the blind indifference and rejection of the adult world. The author presents these rites of passage without sensationalism, deftly contrasting the innocence of the girls against the often-grotesque figures of their elders. Touches of humor lighten the story, but only serve to emphasize its prevailing darkness. Boylan's outwardly simple style conceals the depth of her insights, visual imagery subtly utilized in family photographs, pictures of film stars, and the religious cards Mary handles like talismans. These provide a focus for the dreams of the two girls, calling out the purest qualities in their worshippers. Last Resorts reverses the vision of Holy Pictures, its single-parent heroine dominated by the selfish needs of teenage children. Harriet longs for the easy domesticity taken from her by the desertion of her husband. "Contentment was more nourishing than joy. Being in love was not very peaceful." Snatching vainly at happiness with a married lover, and faced by the return of her husband with a fresh set of demands, Harriet is forced to choose between the comfort of others and her own freedom. Boylan portrays her struggles in a restrained prose whose quietness occasionally startles with sharp single-line images. Set in the present in a more exotic location than Holy Pictures, Last Resorts explores the same basic theme.
Home Rule moves further into the past, describing the fortunes of the Anglo-Irish Devlin family in Dublin in about 1900. With memorable skill Boylan evokes the colorful, squalid city underworld, its casual violence and cruelty. The reader follows the efforts of Daisy Devlin and her siblings to break out from their grim slum tenement with its dissolute father and deluded mother. Daisy escapes only to fall for the handsome, feckless Cecil Cantwell, whose ill-fated business schemes with "the Cantwell corset" recall the use of this rigid, imprisoning symbol in Holy Pictures. Daisy's adventures, and those of her family, are movingly recounted, the author blending humor and pathos with a threatening, atmospheric darkness.
Recent novels show continuing exploration of the form, and fresh psychological perceptions. In Black Baby Boylan re-enters the modern world, where an African child "adopted" by a young middle-class convent girl comes to Dublin to find her now aging "mother." The contrasting characters of large, assertive, life-enhancing Dinah and the sad, withdrawn pensioner Alice, who at her "daughter's" prompting makes her own bid for independence, engage the reader's interest and sympathy, the imaginative plot matched by lively dialogue and description. Towards the end the action veers into the surreal, and the conclusion (for this reader at least) is something of a disappointment. This is a pity, because in all other respects Black Baby is a brilliant example of Boylan's ability to find an unexpected slant on everyday life, and in places is as witty and poignant as anything she has written.
Room for a Single Lady sees the novelist at her best. Rose Rafferty's journey from childhood to adolescence in the Dublin of the 1950s is beautifully evoked, and the book is crammed with the usual lively cast of characters. Rose's glamorous mother downtrodden by domesticity, her old-fashioned father with his doomed "get-rich-quick" schemes, her sisters Bridie and Katie, all live in the memory. More striking still are the procession of lodgers whose different personalities hold out to Rose the promise and the perils of the world outside. Through them, and her family, Rose confronts love and loss, the taboos of sex and incest, from the shocking experiences of Minnie and Mo to the slapstick "affair" of Katie and the milkman "Norman Wisdom." Boylan's first-person narrative abounds in wonderful oneliners—a Christmas turkey lies in the pantry "like a great reclining nude," a bird savaged by the cat flaps feebly "like a wasp stuck in jam," Christmas itself approaches "like a big, lighted cruise liner." Through Rose's eyes, the reader experiences the excitement and terror of entering the adult world, and the bittersweet loss of innocence as childhood passes. ("That summer when nothing happened seemed the end of time intensely lived.") Room for a Single Lady has all Boylan's finest qualities, and shows her writing at its most inspired.
Equally impressive but far more harrowing is Beloved Stranger, where Boylan confronts the problems of aging. The lives of a devoted elderly couple are totally disrupted when shortly before their golden wedding the husband falls victim to senile dementia. The disintegration of the handsome, self-assured Dick Elliott—made crueler still by rare moments of lucidity—is viewed through the eyes of his wife and middle-aged daughter, who find themselves struggling to accept this unforeseen catastrophe. Quietly and without sentimentality Boylan outlines the distress of Lily as she sees her beloved husband change to a violent, aggressive stranger, and shows how she and her daughter Ruth at last come to terms with his madness and death. With today's aged population increasing steadily, and in a world where care homes are a growth industry, Boylan depicts the heartbreak that afflicts so many ordinary lives. With Room for a Single Lady, Beloved Stranger marks the peak of its author's achievement so far.
Boylan's talents are equally evident in the shorter forms. Her earliest collection of stories, A Nail on the Head, describes the pursuit of love in its many manifestations. "The Wronged Woman" reveals the differing views of a husband by his two wives, while "Bad Natured Dog" deftly points out the gulf between appearance and reality. Boylan ranges from the throwaway humor of "Ears" to the macabre atmosphere of "For Your Own Bad" and "Mama," the grotesque characters worthy rivals to those of Holy Pictures. With Concerning Virgins the emphasis is on naivete and innocence, where in a variety of encounters her "virgins" meet and adapt to the demands placed upon them. The author moves easily from the wry humor of "Venice Saved" to the nightmare scenario enacted by two young girls in "The Picture House," and once more displays her gift for the unexpected in striking imagery and frequent twists of plot. The same is true of That Bad Woman, perhaps her best collection to date, where Boylan again provides a new perspective on familiar themes. In different stories she compels pity for a music-hall artist jailed for sex with an under-age girl, and casts fresh light on the feelings of the young woman who steals a child. Things are not always what they seem, Boylan seems to be telling us. The liberating affair of "That Bad Woman" has a surprising aftermath, while in "It's Her" the insistent phone-calls of the nagging ex-wife prove to have a deeper, more tragic purpose. Like her novels, Boylan's stories show keen insights and a heightened, inspired use of language, her understated style creeping stealthily up to startle the unwitting reader. Here, as elsewhere in her fiction, she avoids happy endings, her vision of life presented as a continually absorbing process, still to be resolved.
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