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Odd Fish and Englishmen
Sarah Francis

Odd Fish and Englishmen
Sarah Francis
London 1996

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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


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