cover image More Bread or I'll Appear

More Bread or I'll Appear

Emer Martin. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), $23 (288pp) ISBN 978-0-395-91871-5

Irish author Martin's meandering second novel (after Breakfast in Babylon) traces the erratic intersection of five siblings in a middle-class Irish family as they try (and usually fail) to leave home and make their way in the wider world. Molly, the mother of the clan and a piano teacher by profession, separates from her mentally unstable husband and moves the family from West Ireland to Dublin, where her oldest daughter and favorite, Aisling, can attend college. Yet the capable ""tiger-spirited"" Aisling disappears in her early 20s, leaving a void in her wake. Meanwhile, patterns develop at a belabored pace among the other siblings: teenaged Orla becomes pregnant and is shipped off to New York by the family's benefactor, Uncle Oscar, the priest; Patrick, the only son, exhibits pious, obsessive compulsive behavior that mirrors his father's; Siobhan bounces among jobs in London and New York, growing increasingly anorexic; and Keelin, the youngest and the principal narrator, resigns herself to staying at home to care for her ailing mother, finding work as a teacher. It is not until 15 years after Aisling's disappearance, when most of the siblings are in their early 30s, that Molly persuades Keelin to try to track down her sister, who has been sighted variously in Japan, Hawaii, Mexico and Honduras. Keelin and one or another sister take off around the world, following elusive clues, usually in bars, in pursuit of Aisling. They learn a little about her: she dresses as a man, and sells sex to Japanese businessmen but seems to prefer women. When Keelin finally encounters her in a dreamlike scene on the beach, the real Aisling cannot measure up to the expectations the reader and her family have of her. Martin's prose has a strong rhythmic lilt and her characterization is sound, though unfocused; the voice of Keelin barely emerges from the chatter of her siblings. Although Martin seems to be exploring whatever defines the essential Irish spirit, the narrative drive weakens and is almost lost against the global cacophony of Keelin's picaresque journey. (Feb.)