Anne Griffin’s debut novel, When All is Said, was one of my favourite books of 2019. Listening Still is Irish writer Griffin’s second novel. It focusses on Jeanie Masterson, an undertaker who can hear the last words of the newly deceased. She finds herself a juggler of truth, obfuscations and lies as she tries to balance her commitment to the dead person to pass on a message to the ones left behind, with her own emotional need to soften harsh words that may hurt the recipient. This shaky balance of truth and lies is the theme of the book set in the small community of Kilcross.
It took me a while to get into this book, to care. Unlike Maurice Hannigan in When All is Said who is a character whose head and being I immediately slipped into, I found Jeanie more difficult to reach and less sympathetic. Starting with the shock announcement by Jeanie’s parents that they are retiring and leaving her and husband Niall to run the family undertakers, the novel quickly widens out to encompass Jeanie’s childhood and teenage years and how she came to terms with her unusual gift. This return to the past became frustrating as I wanted to hear more about the voices of the dead and their stories, rather than the ups and downs of Jeanie’s love life. My fault, I was hoping for a community ensemble story in the style of Marilynne Robinson and Elizabeth Strout.
Jeanie’s difficulties with taking over the family firm are inextricably linked to her relationship with her husband. In order to move forward, something has to give. But what? As she seeks the answers, Jeanie’s travels take her to London, Norway and France. I particularly enjoyed the section with Marielle and Lucien. Seventy-five year old Marielle can also hear the dead. Her neighbour and boyfriend Lucien digs graves for Marielle’s clients while rescuing the pieces of furniture she rejects, he stashes them in a shed knowing that she will regret throwing them away.
After the brilliance of When All is Said, perhaps my expectations of a second novel were unrealistically high. Yes I was disappointed but this is still is a well-written, enjoyable novel by an author who is on my to-watch list. And it left me thinking of that old chestnut – can a well-meant lie hurt more than the difficult truth?
BUY THE BOOK
Read my review of WHEN ALL IS SAID.
And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
LISTENING STILL by @AnneGriffin_ #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-5fD via @SandraDanby