The Living

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The Living by Lean Cullinan, book reviewWorking on the website for the small publishing house Bell Books is hardly an exciting life. Even so, since it is Cate’s first job after graduating Dublin’s Trinity College, there is no reason for her to balk about it. She has her college friends and her choir – Carmina Urbana – to keep her busy and entertained after a boring day at work. Then Eddie MacDevitt’s memoire manuscript comes in, and strange things begin to happen. Her boss is hiding the book from everyone, there’s that dark car Cate keeps seeing, that new British tenor in the choir who is so secretive, and even her family are being unusually guarded. Surely, the meanderings of some ex-activist (who knew her uncle, and her boss, back in the day) can’t be all that hush-hush, even if there are still people who want him dead. This is The Living by Léan Cullinan.

I don’t pretend to understand Irish politics, but I do remember some of the horrors that happened there before they started working out peace in the 1990s. My interest in Ireland is more of a touristic nature; the little I’ve seen made me fall in love with that island. That combined with their accents, makes me a sucker for anything Irish. Few other thrillers would have ever caught my eye, and I’m glad this one did. The main reason for this is because our protagonist – Cate Houlihan – isn’t the one doing the politicking or spying; instead, she is an unwitting piece in a puzzle she could never have thought had anything to do with her. This is the feeling we get about her all along, despite her being a strong character. While there is little to nothing she can do to work out what’s going on, she’s at least got her suspicions. Although Cate doesn’t understand what she has anything to do with the book and all the cloak and dagger business surrounding it, at least she isn’t stupid. This overflows into her budding relationship with Matthew Taylor, the British new tenor in her choir.

Several things made sense in this book, and brought it to life for me. For instance, Cullinan hints that Cate hasn’t had the best track record with men, yet whatever problems she had are enough in her past that she’s ready to give romance a go again. This worked perfectly with Cate’s willingness to get involved combined with her instinctual feelings that he wasn’t being totally honest with her. Being a writer, any character that has anything to do with books and publishing are immediate draws for me. However, what really brought it all together for me were the additions of the musical aspects and Cate’s choir. Cullinan really knows her stuff here, and this little added value helped take this story into a far more personal sphere for me. I particularly liked how Cate was able to identify a car following her by “singing” the car’s registration plate numbers (which doesn’t work if your plates are alphanumeric). All of this fed into the atmosphere of a woman caught between simply wanting to get on with her own life and her inability to keep her family’s past from looming over her.

Of course, a truly good thriller needs thrills. Cullinan sprinkles threats in Cate’s path, all of which ultimately lead to her into innocently entering into an untenable situation. I liked how Cullinan built up the suspense here, which kept me reading on. However, I do have to admit that I found two sections (one in the middle and again after the climax) that seemed to go at a bit slower pace than the rest of the story. These are what I call the “oh, get on with it already” passages. While these are distractions, it also means that I had made an emotional connection with the characters, which is a good thing. As for the suspense elements, while that they were definitely there, took a back seat to the characters. This left me feeling divided about if this was a good thing or not. I mostly prefer character driven stories – which this one certainly is; I just wonder if the plot didn’t need to drive just a bit more of this one.

All told, I truly enjoyed this book. Cate is the type of character I’d like to see more of, and while I’m still unsure if Matthew is the right man for her, I’d like to get to know him better, as well. Cullinan takes full advantage of how a country’s terror filled past has left angry-looking scars, and its peace is still tenuous, with a very clear and straight-forward style. In short, Cullinan has brought us a book that captures the essence of today’s Ireland, with honestly believable characters placed into a fascinating plot. For this, The Living deserves a solid four out of five stars.

The Living by Léan Cullinan
Published by Atlantic Books, June 2014
I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an advance copy of this novel for review.

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Living, The
by Léan Cullinan

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Written by Davida Chazan