Title: Civil and Strange
Author: Clair Ni Aonghusa
Release Date: March 11, 2008
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Rating: **** (out of 5)
From the dust jacket:
Eager to escape her failed marriage, Ellen hopes to recapture the magic of her childhood summers when she decides to leave Dublin for the small village of Ballindoon. She is surprised when her uncle Matt, a nearby farmer, welcomes her with the rather mystifying advice to play it “civil and strange,” a local expression meaning “be polite on the surface but keep your distance” – and even more surprised to find herself attracting the attentions of a younger man. But when the two of them are spotted together and Ellen becomes the focus of he fellow villagers’ gossip and judgment, Matt’s words resonate in a new way. Ellen realizes how little she understands about life in Ballindoon, leading her to question not only her choices, but herself.
Meanwhile, she grows closer to Matt and to his friend Beatrice, a widow still troubled by her eldest child’s suicide, and begins to glimpse how the web of connection that defines village life can also be sustaining – which frees her to take a few risks of her own. To Ellen’s great wonder, as the events of this transformative, tumultuous year play out in all three of their lives, it becomes clear that even tradition-bound Ballindoon can allow for new beginnings. Anchored by the cadences of its Irish setting and the love story at its heart, Civil and Strange offers a moving exploration of the possibilities open to us, at any age, if only we are brave enough to embrace them.
Civil and Strange is a novel that is extremely appealing, both for its well-written characters and its Irish countryside setting. These days, the Irish countryside seems to be a picture perfect setting; a place where life is gentler and simpler, and where (at the risk of sounding cliche), everyone knows your name. Aonghusa both dispels and perpetuates that myth. One on hand, the village of Ballindoon is quaint and relaxed; it is Ellen’s escape from the fast pace of Dublin. However, it also has its downsides; its small size ensures that everyone is in everyone else’s business, and life is anything but simple. Still, the picture she paints is appealing and it’s one I wouldn’t mind reading more about.
The characters of Civil and Strange are also extremely well fleshed out. I really loved the way that Ellen was written. She is awkward and entirely unsure of herself; she has a lot of self-doubt, especially after the failure of her marriage. It’s nice to read about a character that has the same insecurities that we all hide within ourselves. The fact that she doesn’t always know what to say or do in a situation makes her more real, more believable. I loved her relationship with Beatrice, as well as Beatrice as her own character. She is incredibly strong and faces a lot through the novel.
I haven’t read any Maeve Binchy (I’m planning on reading Tara Road at some point), but I’d imagine that these two are similar. They both tell compelling tales about life in the Irish countryside. However, one of the aspects I enjoyed most about Civil and Strange was Ellen’s attempts to fit in. I liked reading about the city girl who just needs an escape; after all, isn’t that what many of us dream of being able to do when life gets too rough?