At first glance Odd Fish and Englishmen promises to be yet another
rustic hiddley-diddley tale, told through a fashionably Irish
haze of earthy cultural authenticity. And sure enough, as the
story unfolds of Sadie, a beautiful young Irish newly wed, torn
between fantasy and reality, between the ancient mythologies of
her culture, and the everyday hum-drum realities of her new life
with her English husband in London, we realise that Sarah Francis
is indeed true to the word of her dust-jacket blurb.
Trouble begins when Sadie’s stubborn determination to live in
a fantasy world of "little people" and mermaids’ grottoes
comes into conflict with the stony-faced reality of her English
mother-in-law. What then follows is a series of excruciating and
occasionally hilarious situations as Sadie’s drunkenness and bizarre
behaviour wreaks general havoc against an obligingly dull backdrop
of stuffed suburban Englishness.
Perhaps the most fascinating thing about this entertaining, energetic
and confident first novel is that it is so well written and yet
seems to lack a certain level of reflection with regard to its
subject matter. While Francis writes with both style and intelligence,
one cannot help noticing that it has simply not occurred to her
to examine more critically the notions from which she has generated
the characters, events and places of her book. As such the whole
thing at times becomes horribly amusing in a manner which obviously
falls distressingly short of the author’s intention. For when
presented with a character whose Irishness is conspicuously concomitant
with acute alcoholism and a seemingly congenital inability to
differentiate between fact and fable, one can only cringe politely
and marvel at the potential hazards of celebrating the richness
of other people’s cultures.
In her enthusiasm to dazzle and entertain, Francis subjects her
readers to a relentless play of larger-than-life Irish caricatures.
Sadly it is some of the book’s finer points and more interesting
narrative possibilities that are the first casualties, the depressing
result of which is that the tradition with which Francis is so
clearly enamoured is expressed as little more than a kind of lyrical
stupidity and pretence. This is then all played off against those
oh-so-worth custodians of "the real" – the English.
However, it seems that there is simply not a strong or convincing
enough sense of the harsh and mundane realities of life in this
book from which anyone might wish to so radically abstract themselves.
In other words Francis evokes a world that is just too damned
nice. Consequently all the events and characters become merely
absurd and fantastical, shrouding the whole novel in an impenetrable
light-heartedness from which it seems nothing can escape. Slowly
but surely it becomes apparent that this is strictly entertainment
only and the dim shape of impending tragedy that always seems
to lurk beneath the surface of Francis’s seemingly effortless
narrative gradually slips from view. We’re left floundering in
the shallows of literary fiction.
Reviewed by Guy Danvers