Thank you for sending me ‘The Fabulists’. It’s a very strange and impressive book. Mr Casey has managed to make two lost and empty lives obsessively interesting. The print is hard for me to read so I proceed slowly marvelling that he can make so much out of so little action and impoverishment. I wish you would pass on my admiration.
Martha Gellhorn, 11 October 1994, in a letter to the English publisher
This is a passionate, erotic, mature novel that displays many of the virtues which contemporary Irish fiction so conspicuously lacks: an intelligent vision of an adult relationship coupled with an intelligent vision of contemporary Irish society. Plus, he has a supple prose style which is a constant joy to read.
- Ronan Sheehan, The Irish Press, October 1994
Think about it. Why did you enjoy the last book you enjoyed? Five-to-one it’s because you identified with, hated, laughed at, fantasized about, despised, appreciated, admired, or just plain LIKED one of the lead players. Yes, yes, yes – of course other elements contribute to the success of the book. But when you turn the last page of a novel which you’ve savored and begin immediately to miss the company of at least one key character, you know the author must be doing something right, and you know you’ve just finished a certifiable, two-thumbs- up, grade-A Good Book.
It doesn’t happen often. Or not often enough, anyway.
Recent Irish fiction has thrown up only a small fistful of such characters, and you already know who they are because when they do arrive, industry hype machines generate more noise than a low-flying rock’n'roll band. So it’s a doubly sweet pleasure to come across a quietly-published, no-hype novel that isn’t just a Good Book with memorable characters, but one that genuinely stands shoulder to shoulder with the very best Irish fiction of the last few years.
Philip Casey’s The Fabulists, is such a novel, and to a large extent, it’s the author’s mastery of character that tilts it into Must Read Status.
An impressively mature and honest tale of extra-marital love and family obligation on the dole in contemporary Dublin, The Fabulists presents two of the most convincingly flesh-and-blood characters to turn up in an Irish novel for ages, and lays bare with haunting, microscopic precision their struggle to endure profound personal disappointments and grab one last chance at the could-have-been.
Although The Fabulists is his first novel, Casey writes with the even, controlled tone of a much more experienced author, delving so deeply, so completely into his characters that it’s almost impossible to avoid becoming involved, even immersed, in their saga. You’ll wonder about Tess and Mungo. You’ll care about them. You’ll even find yourself going along with the stories they weave for each other, hoping the tales end before the relationship does. Why? Because they’re not flashy high-concept creations, they’re palpably REAL characters, fully realized and drawn with sensitivity and intelligence.
By all accounts, The Fabulists took ten years to complete, and the care Casey took with the novel is evident in almost every sentence. Yes, it’s a little depressing. But it’s also an enormously compelling romance with two characters who’ll still be in your head weeks after the plot details have disappeared.
- Colin Lacey, The Irish Voice, New York, May 9,1995
I first came across Philip Casey as a poet and always admired his work. This is his first novel, published by Lilliput Press in Dublin in 1994. I approached it with some trepidation since it was a first novel, but I found it amazingly accomplished. It’s a book I’ve read now three or four times, and it has that really magnificent quality that great novels have, where you find yourself thinking about them a few weeks after you finish reading them.
You are walking down the street and the characters in the novel are so vivid that you almost find yourself saying, if you see something in the street, “I wonder what would that guy in the novel think about that?” It’s a love story set in contemporary Dublin and that’s a difficult thing to do because Dublin novelists sometimes tend to characterize Dublin as a gas place full of incredibly funny taxi drivers and bawdy nights in pubs and all the rest. But the Dublin that Philip Casey conjures up reminds me of Dermot Bolger’s Dublin in a way, it’s just so real and absolutely recognizable right from the first page.
It’s a very tender love story. What holds the affair together is the fact that these two people meet once a week and they tell each other stories. So as well as the story in the novel working very well on its own merits, it also builds into a metaphor for the power of stories generally. I found that aspect of the novel very moving. It’s a magnificent book and it’s just come out in England and I’m sure it will do very well there for Philip Casey.
- Joseph O’Connor in an interview with Seamus Hosey for the RTÉ Radio programme Speaking Volumes. The transcript is published by Blackwater Press.
I adored it when I read it. It’s an absolutely gorgeous portrait of Dublin. It reminded me of the film Les Amants des Pont Neuf.
- Katy Hayes, The Arts Show, RTÉ Radio 1
a novel of linguistic power and emotional strength.
Hayden Murphy, The Scotsman.
Casey’s main achievement in The Fabulists lies in his skillful handling of the elements of fact and fantasy, realism and surrealism that make up the novel. Fabulous, seductive fictions are anchored in mundane realities and the compulsion to invent counterbalanced by the obligation to confront the truth.
His geographically centred, metaphorically open narrative allows us to read Tess and Mungo’s journey from immurement to freedom as a parable of a maturing Ireland.
The subtlety and ease with which Casey achieves such symmetry between private and public worlds makes The Fabulists an assured and impressive debut.
Liam Harte, Irish Studies Review, 9, Winter 1994/5, p. 49.
Irish poet and playwright Casey makes his fiction debut with this resolutely candid tale of extramarital love and obligation on the dole in contemporary Dublin. Separated from her pornography-addicted husband and emotionally capricious son, Tess sinks into squalor and despair, spending days and nights deliberating wistfully on the might-have-beens in her life. After a chance encounter with Mungo, also in a marriage bereft of affection since his son’s near death in a house fire, Tess is intrigued by the man or, more precisely, by his spurious autobiography. When he contrives to meet her again, the two begin an affair based on the mutual spinning of tales devised to present the teller in a more alluring light. As the romance develops, the stories become increasingly intimate, hinting more directly at the unspoken circumstances of their lives. When family obligations pressure Mungo into moving far from Dublin, the lovers reluctantly become resigned to ending their relationship, but not before concluding the tales they began. Easily overcoming the potential pitfalls of the novel’s bleak setting, Casey has created an involving, mature drama of a man and a woman struggling to endure profound personal disappointments.
Publishers Weekly, USA Reviewed on: January 2, 1995
Fabulists are tellers of fables: improbable tales designed to amuse and instruct. Fabulous, which comes from the word fable, suggests vast, amazing or excellent – all of which apply to this first novel by poet Philip Casey.
An Irish love story for the 1990s.
Anthony Glavin, The Sunday Tribune
This is a deeply accomplished novel. Casey has a penetrating eye for the stuff of everyday relationships and the compassion to turn the ordinary into compelling and vivid fiction.
Eoin McNamee, The Irish Times
Equally important to the development of the relationship between the two characters, Tess and Mungo, and indeed to the structure of the novel itself, is their imaginative tale-spinning courtship involving exotic European locations.
Affecting the entire tone, however, are the women in the story; by choosing this emphasis, Casey creates a “modern” fable which is paradoxically liberating for both sexes.
And let’s not forget the considerable craft of the author. A highly impressive debut.
Sharon Barnes, In Dublin
This is an impressive first novel, primarily for its insight into both the male and female characters. I look forward to more.
Casey Evans, IT Magazine
In his first novel, The Fabulists, the Irish poet Philip Casey is ostensibly concerned with describing a love affair between Mungo and Tess, two unemployed and unhappily married Dubliners. But what makes this novel so remarkable and compelling is not so much his detailed tracing of their intense affair, but the way in which Casey succeeds in integrating the affair with their drab lives, their city, and their stifled imaginations, all three of which are transformed for brief periods by love.
Another important element that contributes to the success of the novel is how the lovers amuse each other by telling tall tales about their pasts. This is done to give their affair an exotic quality and to hide the disappointments which define their ‘actual’ lives. But the stories they tell of adventures in places they haven’t visited (Tess’s Germany and Mungo’s Spain) form a fascinating double narrative, one which allows for deep insights into both of their lives, and which contributes to the novel’s complexity.
Most Irish novels are written in a realistic mode, but The Fabulists is a more innovative work in which Casey shows not only a gift for writing in the traditional manner, but also the imagination and daring to introduce new novel techniques, which few Irish writers have bothered themselves with, into his fiction. It is clear from this excellent first novel that Casey is an exciting talent and a writer to watch in the future.
- Eamonn Wall, The Review of Contemporary Fiction
I just picked up Philip Casey’s The Fabulists, by Lilliput. It won this year’s Listowel Book of the Year,* and quite often books win prizes and that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re great books, but this I’m just delighted to say was a really, really interesting, unsentimental, very sharp look at two people, both of whom are on the dole, both of whom are trying to raise children in different ways, and they start having a love affair. (It’s also a great mapping of north Dublin, starting with the Ha’Penny Bridge, Liffey Street, Stonybatter, all around there; shops, different kinds of food – a great sociological study of what people eat who are on the dole and all the rest of it).
They fall in love – well, they’re going to have an affair – but what’s terrific about it is they tell each other stories, which are untrue. She supposedly spent some time in Berlin, and he supposedly in Barcelona, and they recount these stories to each other and both of them know that the other one has never been there. But in order to create some kind of wonderful thing out of what really could be a quite sordid sort of love affair, they tell each other these stories.
Just a beautiful book, beautiful.
[That's The Fabulists] by Philip Casey, who’s a poet, I think, before a novelist, so it comes as a surprise, really, that this book was so interesting.
- Evelyn Conlon Talking about her choice of Books of the Year 1995 with Mike Murphy of The Arts Show RTÉ Radio
* The inaugural Kerry Ingredients First Book of the Year Award, Writer’s Week, Listowel, 1995 (This is now The Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award)
Barnes, Sharon. The Fabulists. In Dublin, p.28 November, 1994, p40
Brankin, Una. Rich fantasy springs from harsh reality for Philip (interview) The Sunday Press, November 6, 1994.
Casey, Evans. The Fabulists, by Philip Casey. IT Magazine, October 1994. p112.
Doyle, Martin. The Ties that Bind (interview). The Irish Post, December 17, 1994. p.12
Donavan, Katie. What the Writers are Reading, In Dublin. December 1994. p 41.
Dunne, John. The Fabulists, Philip Casey. Books Ireland, March 1995.
Harte, Liam. The Fabulists. Philip Casey. Irish Studies Review, n 9, Winter 1994/1995, p49.
(unattributed, but based on an interview with Shirley Kelley). Social realism – with a touch of magic. Books Ireland, October 1994.
McNamee, Eoin. Tales of love and damage. The Irish Times, November 5, 1994. Weekend/Books.
Sheehan, Ronan. The Fabulists, Philip Casey. The Irish Press, September 30, 1994, p. 19.
Wall, Eamonn. Philip Casey, The Fabulists. Review of Contemporary Fiction.(USA) Spring 1995. pp 182-3.
The Right to the City: Re-presentations of Dublin in Contemporary Irish Fiction, by Gerry Smyth
Contemporary Irish Fiction Themes, Tropes, Theories Edited by Liam Harte and Michael Parker (London, MacMillan Press/ New York, St Martin’s Press, 2000)
TRA FINZIONE E REALTA Tesi di Laurea di Paula Meucci, Istituto Universitario Lingue Moderne, Milano (Anno Accademico 1996-1997)
Writing Ireland’s Working Class: Dublin After O’Casey, by Dr Michael Pierse (London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010)
*Note: I’m indebted to Paula Meucci’s thesis on The Fabulists for much of this detail. I’d never thought to keep records of dates etc.