Book Review – The Living by Lean Cullinan

This is another book I came across in the library and decided it was worth a read. It took me a few weeks to get round to starting on it, but thanks to its relatively short length and with a little help from all the snow we’ve had in the UK, I managed to finish it in just a few days.

It is an interesting and innovative read. Some of the issues presented in The Living are things that I have not come across before in the literature I’ve read, mostly because it is based very much around its Irish setting and the overriding theme of sectarianism.

But what Cullinan does really well, is to balance this topic with several other things, which combine to make this book a thriller of sorts. It is very measured and understated, but full of the complexity which keeps you from taking everything at face value.

What is it about?

The main character and narrator is Cate Houlihan, a student who lives alone in Dublin, and has a part-time job with a book publisher. One of the books they are working on is a memoir shrouded in secrecy, and is said to contain incriminating information about an old IRA conspiracy, to which members of Cate’s family have connections.

Cate is also a member of a choir, where she meets a British PhD student called Matthew. Shaking off her initial mistrust, she begins a relationship with Matthew, who purports to be studying Irish Republican history.

But he is evasive, and despite her affection for him, Cate is suspicious of Matthew’s motives and why he is keeping so much from her. She also thinks she is being followed.

Then, a series of unexpected events take place in Belfast, where Cate and her choir are giving a performance. This is where the book really gathers pace and becomes a compulsive read.

Cate is a very strong character, She is fiery and passionate, yet also very innocent, and we see that she clearly has her vulnerabilities. The more and more I got to know her, the more I rooted for her.


This was Lean Cullinan’s debut novel, and for me it was a success. She creates tension and intrigue, but also delivers on originality by coming up with a slightly irregular concept.

The pacing in some areas could be better, and there really should have been chapter breaks, but I enjoyed reading The Living. It is distinctly and unmistakably Irish, but for me that made it all the more enjoyable!

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