Book review: Amanda Sthers, Holy Lands; Jenny McCartney, The Ghost Factory

Dani Garavelli enjoys the tale of an Israeli farmer whose aggravating behaviour makes him difficult to love

One of the downsides of technology has been the decline of the epistolary novel. But never fear: Amanda Sthers’ Holy Lands – a riot of a book about a pig farmer in Israel – has arrived to breathe new life into the genre. 

For reasons of pig-headedness, Harry Rosenmerck, ageing cardiologist and the aforementioned farmer, refuses to use a computer and so his partially estranged family – ex-wife Monique, gay son David and newly-single daughter Annabelle, now scattered across the world – communicate with him by letter and with each other by lengthy and literate email. 

Sthers walks the line between moving and mawkish without a wobble.

During the course of the novel, their often-waspish exchanges mellow as they rediscover the affection that has kept them loosely connected despite their geographical and emotional distance.  

In another writer’s hands this could be a schmaltzy mess. But Sthers walks the line between moving and mawkish without a wobble. This she achieves through her clever drawing of Rosenmerck, an impossible, infuriating, yet ultimately endearing man, who sees attack as the best form of defence. 

Another of Sthers’ tricks is to balance the family letters with hilarious, combative quasi-philosophical correspondence between Rosenmerck and a rabbi – Moshe Cattan – who is not over-impressed by the whole pigs-to-Israel project. Their opening exchange sets the book’s tone. Answering earlier, off-stage advice from the rabbi about keeping the animals in a stilt pen over the sea, Rosenmerck writes: “Not a single hoof will touch holy ground. Except of course if you agree we should use them to hunt down terrorists,” to which Cattan replies: “Your pigs have an unparalleled stench and are useless to the army.” They go on bickering, but it is the bickering of two people more alike than either of them care to admit; non-conformists who see argument as an expression of affection and who come to depend on one other. 

There is plenty of sardonic wit between Rosenmerck and his family too. One curt missive in response to his ex-wife’s reads only: “You call that brief. Your letter is two pages long and you drive me nuts.” But there is also anger and love and unresolved pain, all expressed with an admirable lightness of touch. 

Sthers’ book, translated from the original French by the author, is being made into a film which opens next month. I worry that, stripped of its epistolary structure, it will be reduced to a cheesy drama; but James Caan seems a good fit for Rosenmerck, so here’s hoping… 

You can tell within the first few chapters of The Ghost Factory, a novel set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, that Jenny McCartney is a journalist. She has that compulsion, born of news reporting, to over-explain and so we get a reference to The Crown Bar in Belfast as “a doughty old coquette who had her fancy windows shattered every time the IRA attempted to blow up the Europa International Hotel opposite, which it did with a zeal undimmed by repetition”. This is not to say McCartney’s tale of a man inadvertently caught up in violence is dull. There are plenty of sharp observations and inventive lines.

But The Ghost Factory is a victim of timing. Both Anna Burns’ Milkman and David Keenan’s For The Good Times (two Troubles-based novels that experiment with form) are hard acts to follow, especially for a book as conventional as McCartney’s.

Holy Lands by Amanda Sthers (Bloomsbury, £16.99)

The Ghost Factory by Jenny McCartney (4th Estate, £12.99)

Image: Dóra Kisteleki