Tuesday, December 01, 2020

Fiction Review: When All Is Said

I took a break from #NonfictionNovember last month to read a novel chosen by one of my book groups: When All Is Said by Anne Griffin. It's an Irish novel that uses a unique framework to tell the story of a man's life, and we all enjoyed it.

Eighty-four-year-old Maurice Hannigan is sitting at the bar of the fancy local hotel in his small town in Ireland. He's alone, but he has a plan for this special night. He will sit here at the bar and have five special drinks and raise five toasts to the people who have meant the most in his life. The novel consists of the stories he tells to honor each of those people, and--along the way--tell the story of his life. Though he is talking to himself, in his head, he is addressing his son. There are hints right from the first pages that this evening is his swan song, though the reader doesn't know exactly what he has planned. He raises a toast to his older brother, to his son, to his wife, Sadie, who died a few years earlier, and to two other people who affected his life. In doing so, he narrates his own life, from childhood to young man to father to old man. It's not a straightforward story; there are plenty of unexpected twists and turns (and some secrets), both in his own life and in the lives of those around him.

This is a unique way to tell a life story (though its structure reminded me vaguely of The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom), but it is also beautifully written, filled not only with tales of what happened but also with how various events affected Maurice and how he feels (something he wouldn't talk about with anyone). In this passage about his brother, he muses about his loss, in a way that touched me and reminded me of the loss of my father:

"But it's his living presence I've missed the most since your mother left. And no amount of talking to him in my head can take the place of being able to see the man, to touch the skin and bone of him, to hear him sup a pint in Hartigan's. What I wouldn't give for just one hour of his company. No need for much conversation at all. Our elbows on the counter. A bottle of stout each in front of us. Half empty glasses. Looking out at the town. Tapping our feet to the music on the radio or laughing at the madness of the world. The company of the trusted, what? Being understood without having to explain and not having to pretend all is fine. Being allowed to be a feckin' mess. The feeling of his pat on my back as he passes behind me to go to the jax. Is it too much to ask for a simple resurrection?"

Maurice is not a well-educated man, but the author gives him a resonant voice, full of truth and love and sometimes regret. The language is very Irish, and there were a few turns of phrase I wasn't familiar with or didn't understand, but mostly, Maurice is speaking about universal things like love and loss. This original novel was very thoughtful and moving, and most of our book group rated it between 7 and 9 (out of 10).

323 pages, Thomas Dunne Books (St. Martin's Press)

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Listen to a sample of the audiobook here, with Maurice's Irish lilt narrated by Niall Buggy, and/or download it from Audible. This sample is from the beginning of the novel, as Maurice looks at himself in the mirror and begins his internal discussion with his son.


You can purchase When All Is Said from an independent bookstore, either locally or online, here:

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You can also buy through indie bookstores using Bookshop.



Or you can order When All Is Said from Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide.


  1. I like the sound of this book. The idea of toasting those who most impacted one's life is a nice idea.

    1. Yes, it's an unusual framing approach