Reviewed by Emma Crowley
Jeanie Masterson has a gift: she can hear the recently dead and give voice to their final wishes and revelations. Inherited from her father, this gift has enabled the family undertakers to flourish in their small Irish town. Yet she has always been uneasy about censoring some of the dead's last messages to the living. Unsure, too, about the choice she made when she left school seventeen years ago: to stay or leave for a new life in London with her charismatic teenage sweetheart.
So when Jeanie's parents unexpectedly announce their plan to retire, she is jolted out of her limbo. In this captivating successor to her bestselling debut, Anne Griffin portrays a young woman who is torn between duty, a comfortable marriage and a role she both loves and hates and her last chance to break free, unaware she has not been alone in softening the truth for a long while.
Many thanks to Elaine Egan from Hachette Ireland for my copy of Listening Still to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.
I must have been one of the very few people who never got around to reading Anne Griffin’s debut When All is Said which garnered huge critical acclaim. Now she is publishing her second novel Listening Still and I knew I shouldn’t let the opportunity pass me by to read it. Yes, initially, I had some slight misgivings, would it be too literary for me and combined with the concept of being able to speak to the dead, well that just seemed to be too far-fetched. Right from page one my fears were allayed and I was quickly immersed in a magnificently told story that I devoured in a day. I couldn’t leave this book out of my hands. It was so beautifully written with the perfect pacing and characters which have you deeply invested in their story. There is so much to take from this wonderful novel and without doubt I believe this will be another huge success for the author.
Given the subject matter this could have been a morbid, dark, hard to digest read but instead it was the total opposite. Don’t get me wrong it’s not all light and fluffy. In fact far from it, but it’s the perfect balance between light and shade that is achieved that makes for an intriguing and thought provoking read. From the minute Jeanie Masterson hears the news that her father is retiring from the family funeral director business and handing it to her she just wants to run. In fact for years before this point she had wanted freedom, to escape from the weight of expectation but family obligation had put a stop to this and since then her decision to remain and its consequences has always eaten away at her. She loves what she does but at the same time she remains torn by those that need her and what she actually wants herself. She inhabits a world she both loves and fears. Mastersons funeral directors is unique and people come from far and wide to have their family members tended to on their final journey.
Jeanie and her father David have a special talent in that they can speak to the dead. She is the last of the line that can listen to the dead and pass on information to those that still remain. This puts untold pressure on her for sometimes those still living do not wish to hear what has been said, whilst others take great comfort and solace from what Jeanie is able to pass on. There is a brief window in which messages can be passed on before the persons soul departs this world for the last time. I thought this was going to be laughable and just far too over the top but instead with such a deft touch the author turns something unrealistic into something fascinating. So much so that you wish it could be true. How our lives would change if we could just make contact for one last time with our lost loved one. The little stories that emerge from those passing on were interesting and at times added a lighter touch to the story. Yet they didn’t dominate for this really was Jeanie’s journey to a conclusion far from certain or foretold.
I thought the talking to the dead strand of the story would dominate the overall plot instead it is just a small facet to the overall person that is Jeanie but it feeds seamlessly into the overall story. Her complex past and the things she feels so deeply which still affect her now start to take over as she grapples with the decision to remain and continue the business or to escape which she has longed to do for so long. This involves so much soul searching and questioning. Everything in her life is analysed and the relationship she has with Niall is examined and dissected. The true Jeanie that she has suppressed for so long and the one that perhaps she let go when she shouldn’t have start to reappear. Nothing is clear cut with her and usually I would find myself making judgements on the overall plot and characters fairly early on but here I went with the flow as such as unbiased position was presented to the reader.
In spite of this there were times when I found Jeanie frustrating in the way she treated Niall. It’s like his feelings weren’t taken into consideration. She became almost self-centred and too focused on trying to regain what was lost in the past. Niall had been her friend for years growing up before friendship turned to love but was it true love on Jeanie’s behalf or was she settling for second best? She wonders ‘Why aren’t we braver, we humans - why hadn’t we the courage to tell it like it was when alive - fear haunts and silences us?’. Now with a decision to be made Jeanie is starting to learn more about herself and she knows testing times are ahead. Is it time for her truth to come out? Can she cope with what the journey she must undertake? Can she deal with upsetting/hurting those that are closest to her? Is the weight of expectation that she has shouldered for so long just far too much? Does she still regret a choice she made so many years ago? Should duty and obligation always win out or should we listen to our heart and follow to where it is calling us?
The news from her parents feels like an abandonment and a betrayal. Why should she be left the business even though her husband Niall and Aunt Harry both work with her as embalmers? Not to mention the impact this upheaval will have on her brother Mikey who is autistic and to whom routine and regulation is everything. You get the impression from the first few chapters that Jeanie is weighed down by something. That it’s not just her frustrations with the business or the duty she feels to her parents that has her reacting in the way she does to the news. To understand what motivates her and what her thought process is, we are taken sporadically back to her childhood, adolescence and into her young adult years.
These glimpses help the reader understand how she reached the point in her life that she inhabits today and the connections she forges with the people who have passed give the reader an understanding as to why she feels so stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to accepting or declining her father’s offer. ‘But they can’t actually physically hold you here, Jeanie, the living or the dead, not if you don’t want it. You have agency over your own life’. But does she really? Did she not make a life long commitment when she turned down an opportunity to follow her heart all those years ago? I loved this description of how Jeanie feels as she wrestles with her decision trying to take all the facets of her life into account. In my mind, it actually sums up how grief begins to take hold of us as well. ‘Everything inside of me was falling, splitting, rivers of cracks making their way to every corner of me’.
Listening Still is a fantastic read and very different from my usual genres of choice but I am so glad I read it. It has such a clear, well structured narrative although I will say the big family secret didn’t have the impact on me that I felt the author wished to achieve. It wasn’t all that shocking and it for me it just came too far out of nowhere and didn’t have the impact on the overall story that was needed. To be honest the secret could have been omitted and I would still have been very happy with the way the story meandered towards its conclusion. This is an excellent read and Jeanie definitely gets under your skin in more ways than one. It will leave you with much to contemplate and I look forward to reading more form this talented author in the future.