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“When All Is Said”: a review of Anne Griffin’s knockout debut novel

Note: plot spoilers and discussions of death by suicide.

Cafes and side streets of Dublin

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In February this year, I had the chance to go to Ireland for a long weekend. I’ve been threatening to visit Ireland for years and it was amazing to finally be able to make that happen. Ireland is full of amazing literary nooks and even the famous Temple Bar has academic roots with Sir William Temple (philosopher and teacher) founding the bar in 1599.

Temple Bar with some blue skies in February!

Dublin is a beautiful city and we had amazing weather whilst we were there, which I am told for February is rare. We were able to visit the Guinness Warehouse, which is the Guinness museum (even though I am a Kilkenny girl) and learn about the true hero of Guinness: Olivia Guinness (née Whitmore) who is the wife of Arthur Guinness. She had twenty-one children! The fact that there isn’t a shrine built in her honour definitely deducts a few points from Ireland, if you ask me.

Any time I travel, I am always in local bookshops to find out what locals are reading and to see if I can pick up any books by local authors. I love my literary souvenirs because unlike a fridge magnet collection, I feel like I get to actually use and enjoy these books again and again. And this brings me to the star of this article: When All Is Said by Anne Griffin.

Book cover of Anne Griffin’s novel, When All Is Said

I have read Griffin’s novel twice now, which if you know me is rare. A book really has to capture something special for me to want to re-read it and this novel has something extremely special. Firstly, let me put a disclaimer out there that this book made me cry, both times I read it. The second time was on a plane, so yay for public awkwardness. Secondly, if you don’t cry whilst reading this, are you a sociopath?

The premise of the novel is rather simple: an old man of 84, has five different drinks to toast the five different people who have really shaped his life. The main protagonist, Maurice Hannigan, represents a ‘simpler’ version of Irish life. He loves the country and farming, which in turn shows his strong connection to the land. Something that seems to ring true for people of his generation. Maurice has never been a man of letters and actually admits to being dyslexic in the novel. He is always more hands-on with his work and despite his slow start in school becomes extremely successful. He also represents a type of stoic masculinity that I feel like I can see all around me. He struggles and perhaps is even fearful of showing vulnerability and we see that throughout his relationships.

“And as for Irish men. I’ve news for you, it’s worse as you get older. It’s like we tunnel ourselves deeper into our aloneness. Solving our problems on our own. Men, sitting alone at bars going over and over the same old territory in their heads.”

Yet, in his own way, he does try to show people love. In his one little life, Maurice has seen some great highs and some great lows and I think it can be easy to forget how much people can carry around with them.

The loss of Maurice’s older brother, Tony, to TB strongly influences how Maurice copes with later tragedies and successes. His brother, who affectionately called him Big Man, is a mentor, protector, friend, and confidant for Maurice. His death cuts deep and despite all the years since his death, you can still feel how raw it is for Maurice. Tony is the first person that Maurice toasts in the bar and I think this is not done simply for the sake of the chronology of the characters. Tony is echoed throughout all his later relationships for better or worse.

Maurice goes to the bar in Meath two years after the death of his wife, Sadie. And he goes there with the intention to remember, but to also kill himself. His story is a spoken suicide note for his son, Kevin, who lives in the U.S. as a successful journalist. Maurice has tied up all his loose ends, sold his business and properties, divided the funds for his son and grandchildren, and bought some drugs and a good bottle of whiskey with which to farewell the world. Taking his life and his story into his own hands is a powerful and heartbreaking ending. It isn’t one of those stories where the main character is rescued at the last minute and to be honest, I would have been annoyed with that ending. Maurice has had a spectacular normal simple little life, something we can all only hope for in the end.

“I only ever wanted to belong to one person and she wasn’t in that room. And in my heart I knew that even if I was a man comfortable with all the small talk it would take to break into that new life, I didn’t want it. I simply did not want it.”

Griffin’s writing is unlike anything I have read. Her storytelling and the way she weaves past and present could rival the likes of Margaret Atwood. Maurice is so real and he feels like he could be anyone’s father or grandfather. In fact, I bet we all have someone like that in our families. The realness of her character building is incredible and I cannot wait to see more from her. I gave this book five stars on Goodreads, but feel like this is one of those moments where I wish I could give it 100 more.

What Contemporary Irish authors are you reading at the moment? As always, share the reading love.