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Where Have You Been? by Joseph O'Connor

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Where Have You Been? by Joseph O'Connor

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: A beautiful, touching book of short stories laying out the human condition for examination with such language and insight that it will become a treasured companion rather than a collation of bound pages.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 336 Date: October 2012
Publisher: Harvill Secker
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1846556890

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Irish novelist Joseph O'Connor has had quite a 2012. Earlier in the year he joined the ranks of such authors as Edna O'Brien, Roddy Doyle and Seamus Heaney when he became a recipient of the PEN award for his outstanding contribution to Irish literature. What could possibly top that for a sense of achievement? Well this, his first book of short stories in 20 years, must come pretty close to at least equalling it, amply illustrating the reasons for the panel's decision.

Where Have You Been? takes us through seven short stories and a novella that move back and forth over time. It's a fairly recent 2007 for Two Little Clouds where two old school friends meet in a bar and reflect on post-fatherhood life in a blokey way. Their attitudes and paths seem to differ but they may not be that different after all. We travel back to 1988 in Boyhood's Fire as Liam faces a dilemma on a difficult day for dilemmas. His sister calls him from Paris to tell him that her leg has been amputated so could he tell their father? Unfortunately he's on his way to a family wedding at the time so it puts a bit of a downer on the day. The Death of a Civil Servant is again from the 21st century where we meet Senan as he's subsumed by a life without his spouse. His father is an elderly man handicapped by blocked emotions, but still exuding a silent love that contrasts poignantly with his inability to help. Then there's my favourite…

Orchard Street Dawn revolves touchingly around a young family trying to make a better life in 19th century New York. Bridget still hopes that one day they will return to Ireland despite the memory of the famine which drove them away, where as her husband, Joseph, wants to forget the past and look forward. However the past eventually catches up with them as a spectral shadow. Be warned – this is a story that will make you cry, irrespective of where you read it. For me the unpreventable tears fell in a public car park.

The novella at the end of the book chronicles a love affair between Cian Hanahoe who's lost his wife and is on the verge of losing his sanity and Catherine, a media production assistant who is… well, you decide. I'm in the pro-Cian camp for this one.

The time zones and settings may waiver but there are common themes that tie the stories together. Firstly all feature an encounter that will change lives, sometimes for the better (as in the case of the teacher facing up to the biggest secret she's withheld from her husband before her encounter with a tour guide in October-Coloured Weather), sometimes not. Secondly the stories are bound by the deft touch and empathy of the story teller. Joseph O'Connor is Irish so would understand the nation and its individuals, but he translates them onto the page with such tenderness that they breathe through his words. The way he writes ensures that these aren't characters; they may be fictionalised, but they're fully developed people.

He allows us to share moments of their lives via a beautiful, poetic turn of phrase that lilts as softly as any Irish accent. They laugh, the love, they struggle but Irish culture remains. As we read we understand a little of what it must be like for a people to migrate for survival while still carrying home in their heart. We witness a long collective memory, welding pain, faith, history and politics into one mass of cause and effect. We see humanity in both strength and weakness described in such a way that we more than empathise, we melt into the story.

We all know how much richer the world is for the existence of Irish culture but I'm just beginning to realise how much richer literature is for the existence of Joseph O'Connor. Sounds a bit cheesy? Maybe but just read this book and then tell me I'm wrong.

A special thank you to Harvill Secker for sending us a copy of this book for review.

If you've enjoyed this book then we suggest you luxuriate a little longer, this time with Joseph O'Connor's Ghost Light.

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Buy Where Have You Been? by Joseph O'Connor at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Where Have You Been? by Joseph O'Connor at


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