Irish writer Anne Griffin follows up her bestselling debut When All is Said with a new novel about 32-year-old Jeanie Masterson, who can hear the dead—a useful talent for her work in a family of undertakers. When her parents announce their retirement, Jeanie reflects on her rather safe life and must decide whether she wants to continue on the path of least resistance.
The fact that Jeanie can hear the dead becomes quickly irrelevant, operating as a kind of quirky light relief to the main story, which Griffin unfolds skilfully, drawing the reader in tightly. She is a complex character, who doesn’t always do what the reader might like her to do, which makes her gratifyingly real, torn between head and heart, passion and duty ... Irishness is an essential ingredient in Griffin’s stories, from the small towns to the large landscapes to the agricultural life to the sense of humour. The overall effect...is one of twinkling, lovable Irishness but it stops short of becoming something hackneyed, which I suspect plays a big part in Griffin’s international appeal. Griffin’s writing is even more assured in this novel [than in her last], and her confidence is particularly evident in her control of her large cast of family, friends and funeral parlour clients, which call to mind Marian Keyes’ vast arrays of lovable and entertaining characters ... There are deep thoughts sown beneath the light and charming surfaces of Griffin’s novels. Her books are fable-like, deep musings on life, mortality, and what makes a life worth living, philosophy for everyday readers, cleverly disguised as a good old-fashioned story. And if that’s not a recipe for another bestseller, I don’t know what is.
The characters are well-developed, especially the father, the change-averse Mikey, her straight-talking friend Peanut, and her first love, the wolfishly handsome Fionn. Family and relationship dynamics are also skilfully portrayed. The problem was that I didn’t warm to Jeanie herself, finding her at times quite negative, prickly and indecisive. However, the gradual unravelling of the story kept me engaged to the end.
... another high-concept premise designed to match the success of the crowd-pleasing 'five toasts' structure in When All Is Said. Whether the saga of the Masterson’s funeral dynasty succeeds or 'strains credulity to a disruptive degree'...is a question that will test the reader ... The tone wavers unconvincingly between flippancy and gravity ... Striving for pathos, the narrative too often descends into bathos ... episodes seem creepy and perhaps even a little blasé about serious real-life subjects. Yet the novel carries many of the winsome Irish signature traits we expect of Griffin. The intense love affair with Fionn and the caring relationship she shares with her autistic brother, Mikey, are sensitively handled. Aunt Harry, best friend Peanut and Arthur the postman are strong characterisations, although the final twist concerning her father seems contrived and inconsequential to the story. High-concept premises tend to capture their essence in the title, and Listening Still is no exception. The problem is the listening part comes to dominate the story, and a feeling persists that under all the hokum a pretty good story is dying to make itself heard.