I first didn’t meet Ruth Gilligan at Belfast Book Festival two years ago. We were sitting in the same row at a rather annoying panel event. At one point I looked down the row, caught her eye and we both did a simultaneous, exasperated eye roll and then never actually met afterwards. I came home to a Twitter message which said, “I’m the eye-rolling girl at the end of your row. Sorry we never met in person.” Mostly, I entertain a faint distrust of people I meet on social media. It’s nothing personal. It’s just that I don’t actually know them and the only thing we have in common is books, or Casualty, or the mistaken belief that I’m going to follow them back and employ their services as a Life Coach or Personal Trainer. But, with Ruth, I knew we could actually be friends in real life. Shared irritations are always much stronger connections than shared likes.
Last month I picked up a copy of Ruth’s new novel, Nine Folds Make A Paper Swan. I didn’t know anything about it, except the eye-rolling girl with the good fringe had written it and it was going to be published by Tin House in the States, (the ex-Portlander in me still has a kind of bookish crush on Tin House). I read the back cover in the book shop and discovered it was about the Jewish community in Ireland. A few years back, I worked on a project about the Donnaghadee Kibbutz and the children who arrived in Belfast as part of the Kindertransport. Ever since I’ve been fascinated by the Jewish relationship with Belfast and the rest of Ireland. I couldn’t wait to read Ruth’s book.
Nine Swans is a beautifully written novel. You can tell Ruth has carried out extensive research. The references to anecdotes, characters and historical happenings in the Irish Jewish community are all based on information she was able to glean during visits to Ireland and the Irish diaspora in Jerusalem. The story itself drives the novel forwards but it really helped me locate events within an actual history to hear references to Lady Gregory, other recognisable Irish figures and places I’ve visited. Ruth has a very light touch with her research. She deftly weaves her character’s stores in alongside historical detail and the kind of beautiful tales and allegories which characterise Jewish culture. It’s almost impossible to notice the seams or, realise that Ruth herself, did not grow up in the Jewish tradition. Her fictional voice is as authentically Jewish as Jonathan Safran Foer’s in Everything is Illuminated, or Nicole Krauss’s in A History of Love, (two novels which are reminiscent of Nine Swans), while her Irishness adds another rich layer to the humour and history of the novel.
Nine Swans has three distinct sections and narrative voices, exploring three different characters as they try to find their place within both their Irish and Jewish identity. Each strand is distinct and also linked to the other story lines so the novel itself feels like a kind of overview of the Jewish community’s place in the last century or so of Irish history. I have to say, despite my own interest in early 20th century Jewish history, it was the most modern of the three strands which I found the most compelling. Here we meet Aisling, a lapsed Irish Catholic considering a conversion to Judaism after she falls in love with a Jewish man living in London. I found Ruth’s exploration of just how difficult Aisling was finding the process of leaving behind a faith she no longer believed in, richly reminiscent of my understanding of Judaism as both a cultural and personal identity as much as a faith. I found myself thinking about Aisling’s dilemma long after I finished the novel.
I finally got to meet Ruth in person last week. She was over in Belfast to launch an exhibition focused on the representation of Jewish culture in Irish literature at PRONI, (it’s fascinating, by the way, and well worth a visit). We had a cup of tea, a chicken goujon and a brief, but quite intense, conversation about what we like reading and what we don’t like reading and all the high and lows of writing books and it was really very wonderful to make an online friend into an actual real life friend. Sometimes Twitter is an agent of supreme good rather than evil. I hope I see more of Ruth in the not-online world. I have a lot of things I want to talk to her about and I can’t wait to read whatever she turns her hand to next.
Nine Folds Make A Paper Swan is published by Atlantic Books and available online at www.amazon.co.uk/Nine-Folds-Make-Paper-Swan/dp/1782398562