Despite A Strong Start, 'Modern Gods' Falls Short Of Its Promise Critic Maureen Corrigan says Nick Laird's latest novel begins as a tale of two Irish sisters, but ultimately turns into "a lot of wild blather" about political and religious orthodoxies.


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Despite A Strong Start, 'Modern Gods' Falls Short Of Its Promise

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This is FRESH AIR. Nick Laird is an award-winning Northern Irish novelist and poet whose witty and politically informed writing is better known in Europe than America. Our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, has just read Laird's latest novel called "Modern Gods" and says it's not half bad. Here's her review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Nick Laird knows how to turn a phrase. The first 150 pages or so of my copy of his latest novel, "Modern Gods," bristle with post-it notes. I placed them next to scenes or sometimes just words that caught my eye. So fresh can his writing be. A young man picks up a woman in a restaurant by cheekily telling her, you've really got to stop staring at me. A woman who works as a successful realtor reflects that if she had a gift for presenting houses not as they are but as they really should be - well, that was only to be expected of someone who'd lived with an alcoholic for as long as she had.

As a writer and poet, Laird himself has been hailed as something fresh. Born in Northern Ireland, Laird, who's in his early 40s, came of age during the everyday violence of The Troubles. Reinvention is a big theme in Laird's work, and he's living proof of the possibilities of change. He was the first in his family to go to university - in his case, Cambridge, where he met his wife, the novelist Zadie Smith. It's all a far cry from the kind of small town in Northern Ireland where Laird grew up and where a large part of "Modern Gods" is set.

This novel starts out as a version of the time-honored tale of two sisters, one who stayed home and one who went away. Alison, the younger, is the homebody. A divorcee with two small children, she works in her parents' real estate business in Ballyglass in Northern Ireland. Older sister Liz is 34. She's an anthropology professor who teaches listlessly in New York. We're told Liz has come to the realization that she's the kind of teacher who talks fast because she's not entirely sure of her facts and whose lesson plan is three lines long and most weeks consists of reading out chapters of her own far-from-finished book.

When the novel opens, Liz is reluctantly flying back to Ireland because Alison is going to be married again. Unlike her first husband, a bullying policeman who drank too much, Alison's new intended is a mild-mannered handyman named Stephen (ph). Stephen, however, waves red flags that Alison willfully ignores. On their first date, he tearfully tries to tell Alison about things he's done in his past that he's ashamed of and paid for. Alison shuts him down.

She later Googles his name with the words murder, bombing and terrorist. When she finds nothing, Alison convinces herself that whatever Stephen did couldn't have been that bad. They'll live in the present, she thinks. Right. So it is that on the first day of their honeymoon, Alison and Stephen awake to see their wedding photo splashed on the front page of Sunday papers under outraged headlines. When "Modern Gods" stays within the bounds of this closely observed family story about Alison's shot at happiness thwarted by the power of the past, about Liz's reckoning with the price she's paid for leaving Ballyglass, it's an engrossing spin on Laird's signature theme of reinvention.

But "Modern Gods" doesn't stay within those bounds. It gets antsy or maybe even anxious about sticking to the traditionally female terrain of domestic drama. And so, in its second half, the novel goes seriously haywire. Think "Heart Of Darkness" without its colonialist weight or "A Handful Of Dust" without the laughs. Liz the anthropologist accepts a last-minute gig to be the academic presenter on a BBC documentary about a new religious movement erupting on an island off the coast of Papua New Guinea.

Deep into the rainforest, Liz treks to interview a charismatic female prophet whose followers fiercely identify with their religion and a commitment to political independence, even at the cost of violence. Lest the parallels with Northern Ireland be lost on us readers, the island Liz flies to is named New Ulster. And like most literary jungles, this one is lush with epiphanies waiting to trip up its white, European visitors. Liz returns from the jungle a changed woman hungering for community while, back in Ballyglass, her sister Alison is busy questioning her own belief in marriage as a form of salvation.

For a novel that ultimately aims to expose the dangers of political and religious orthodoxies, "Modern Gods" winds up getting awfully preachy. In the second half of the book, all those witty phrases Laird was turning earlier grind to a halt. The novel starts out with a lot of promise, but like the beliefs and conventions it punctures, "Modern Gods" itself ends up being a lot of wild blather.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Modern Gods" by Nick Laird. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR...


THE BEATLES: (Singing) It's getting better all the time. I used to get mad at my school. No, I can't complain.

GROSS: We talk about and listen to the new 50th anniversary edition of The Beatles's groundbreaking album "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." It has lots of interesting outtakes and a new stereo remix. We'll hear from Giles Martin, who produced the anniversary collection and is the son of the album's original producer, George Martin. I hope you'll join us. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.


THE BEATLES: (Singing) Me used to be angry young man. Me hiding me head in the sand. You gave me the word. I finally heard you're doing the best that I can. I've got to admit it's getting better, a little better all the time. I have to admit it's getting better, it's getting better since you've mine. Getting so much better all the time. It's getting better all the time, the time, the time. It's getting better all the time, the time, the time. I used to be cruel to my woman. I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved.

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