Modern Gods by Nick Laird

Modern Gods

Nick Laird

Laird's brave, innovative novel charts the intimacies and disappointments of a family trying to hold itself together, and the repercussions of history and faith.

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A powerful novel about two sisters who must reclaim themselves after their lives are dramatically upended, from an award-winning author with “a wonderfully original and limber voice” (The New York Times)
“[Nick Laird’s] kinetic prose, full of insight about politics, history and religion, dazzles eye and ear." –The New York Times Book Review

“Nick Laird takes two experiences poles apart and unites them in gorgeous language…[with] fierce tenderness. ” Dave Eggers, author of Heroes of the Frontier

Alison Donnelly has suffered for love. Still stuck in the small Northern Irish town where she was born, working for her father’s real estate agency, she hopes a second marriage will help her get her life back together. Her sister Liz, a fiercely independent professor who lives in New York City, is about to return to Ulster for Alison’s wedding, before heading to an island off the coast of Papua New Guinea to make a TV show about the world’s newest religion.

Both sisters hope to write their own futures, but the past has other ideas. Alison wakes up the day after her wedding to find that her new husband has a past neither of them can escape. While Liz, in a rainforest on the other side of the planet, finds herself increasingly entangled in the eerie, charged world of Belef, the charismatic middle-aged woman she has come to film, the leader of a cargo cult.

As Modern Gods ingeniously interweaves the stories of Liz and Alison, it becomes clear that both sisters must learn how to negotiate with the past, with the sins of fanaticism, and decide exactly what the living owe to the dead.  Laird’s brave, innovative novel charts the intimacies and disappointments of a family trying to hold itself together, and the repercussions of history and belief.

Advance Galley Reviews

Reading Modern Gods helped me realise the human tendency to make gods out of our beliefs and how disillusioned we feel at their breakdown. The chapters alternate between Stephen and Alison on their honeymoon and Liz and party in PNG with Belef. Alison is playing make-believe with her husband. Liz is doing it as a TV presenter. Additionally, in PNG, the rise of Belef’s The Story is juxtaposed against the New Truth Mission of the Werners. The story of the Donnelleys is interspersed with short third person accounts of those who were killed at the pub. There was something touchingly sad about those lives cut short, just as you are getting to know them. Slowly the intricacies and instabilities of the family relationships come to the fore. Liz has always felt outside the family circle, an adult in a scale model. Returning home for the wedding, she feels uncomfortable with her place in the family unit. Everything is the same, and yet not. The sisters’ relationships is a strange one. Each pities the other, but in her smug self-satisfaction of having two children and a husband, even if he is the second, Alison pities Liz harder. Full and detailed review at

My ARC of Modern Gods unfortunately expired before getting to read it. Hopefully I can pick up a copy and thusly put my review here.

I made it a little more than halfway through Modern Gods and then my galley expired and I wasn't able to finish it. What i was able to read was so well-written though, and kept me sucked in. It seems like a fantastic story and I plan to pick up a cory in order to finish it.

I loved this book from start to finish. It tells the interwoven stories of two Irish sisters and how their two very different chosen paths in life impact their struggling family. The plot unfolds against the underpinning theme of fanaticism and whether the sins of fanatics deserve forgiveness. I found the prose engaging, the characters compelling, and the settings around the world vivid and memorable. The theme of fanaticism had me pondering it long after I finished the book.

This book is the story of two sisters, Liz and Alison and how the past shapes our lives and thus our futures. The book stats with a very bloody beginning and it takes awhile to really understand the part in places in the story. I have to admit I struggled with this book. It kept bouncing back and forth between the two sisters with touches on the backstory of the people killed in the opening scene. If I was not reviewing the book for First to Read, I must admit that I probably would have given up. I did not find the ending very satisfying and unfortunately cannot recommend this book.

Fantastic read. In short description - the Donnelly sisters, Alison and Liz, are pulled in separate directions and have to work through their differing traumatic experiences. Alison's in the domestic vein and Liz'so from her work travelling abroad. I was so moved by the raw, realistic ending of the novel. It did not have a happy ending but still left you with a sliver of hope that things might just work out in the end.

Nick Laird has woven an amazing tapestry of a novel with Modern Gods. The opening scene of a terrorist attack on an Irish pub is followed by a seemingly ordinary introduction to the Donnelly family, primarily sisters Alison and Liz. Without repeating the plot and character details so carefully outlined in other reviews, suffice it to say that the themes of family, faith, marriage, political upheaval are all addressed in thorough and interesting ways. How and why individuals make the choices we make and deal with the consequences of our choices are the crux of this excellent novel. Although at times the various threads of this literary tapestry seem to be unattached to one another, the finished work reveals how painstakingly everything fits together.

The description I read for this book mentioned a modern day cargo-cult, which was what piqued my interest. However, what really grabbed me in this book was the depiction of Northern Ireland, a country I know very little about, which seems to be haunted by its past in much the same way America is. I don't read a whole lot of contemporary fiction, especially in the "family drama" subgenre, because it just isn't my interest, but this pushed me out of my comfort zone there and gave me a peek into a culture I didn't realize was so different from my own. For example, talking about an "integrated school" or a "mixed marriage" means something quite different there than it does here. So the way that culture was portrayed helped give me some understanding and interest and I'm trying to learn more about Ireland's history as a result. The story didn't prove to be quite as weird as I had assumed from the description and maybe that's because I expected something that was never promised.

The description of this book reads in part, "Both Liz and Alison are looking to be reborn, to be cleansed in some way, and the dramatic journeys that they take form the backbone of this compelling novel about trust, intimacy, complicity, religious belief, and the bonds of family life." I don't think that the person who wrote that summation actually read the book. Neither Liz nor Alison is "reborn" or "cleansed" here, and no one takes a journey (although they do both need to examine their own contributions to unfortunate events). The book opens with a terrorist attack on an Irish pub, in which several people are killed. The way in which this incident is woven into the story was the most interesting part of the book for me. The focus of the book is the Donnelly family, including the parents Judith and Kenneth, who both have serious health issues, and their grown children Liz, Alison and Spencer. Liz is an anthropologist living in New York who comes to Ireland for the second wedding of her younger sister Alison. Alison is marrying Stephen, a man with a tragic past, and she really should have listened to him when he tried to tell her about it before the wedding. After the wedding their marriage is severely challenged. Spencer's sole contribution to the book is to have a boring affair with a married woman. His character is given short shrift here and I have no idea why he was included in the book. There is also a dog who Liz smuggles into Ireland and dumps on her parents while she goes to New Guinea. The dog then disappears until the final pages of the book. Liz has been asked to fill in as host of a BBC documentary on a religious movement in New Ulster near Papua New Guinea. A woman called Belef has started a new religion there, combining local religions with Christianity. She communicates with the dead, including her daughter, in order to obtain the cargo that she sees going exclusively to the white people. Belef is a grieving mother who is part insane and part shrewd. The chapters of the book dealing with the film crew, the Christian missionaries and Belef and her followers were my least favorite. I found this book disjointed. Both the Belef story and the Irish story (to a lesser extent) deal with the role of religion in people's lives. Both Belef and Judith use religious rituals to deal with death, grief and illness. Religion is also a source of violent conflict in both settings and divides the Protestants and Catholics in Ireland and the Christian missionaries and Belef in New Guinea. However, I thought that the religious linkage didn't completely tie the two parts of the book together. I think that I would have been happier with just the Alison/Stephen storyline. I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

The book opens with a horrific shooting inside a bar and then quickly shifts to the lives of the Donnelly family. In between chapters focusing primarily on Liz and Allison Donnelly, there are additional scenes from the shooting. I was pulled into the story of the Donnellys and kept wondering why the shooting scenes were included. I figured it out just before the jaw-dropping reason was revealed in the narrative. However, this book is not a thriller. It has things to say about how people deal with tragedy and loss, and how faith does (or doesn't) play a part in that. The characters are believable and their actions and feelings make sense. I found this to be a thought-provoking story about an interesting family and a violent period in Ireland's history.

Ultimately this book was about the Donnelly family who live in Ireland and run a real estate agency. Most of the plot focuses on the 2 sisters, Liz and Allison, and their differing lives. Also add in a bit of reflection about religion and philosophies to the story. I struggled to finish this book finding it very disjointed and unsatisfying. Thanks to First to Read- Penguin Books USA for the free copy of this book.

After reading "Modern Gods", I could not help reflecting on how pain and trauma in our lives cause us to either cling to our faith or else create new gods of our own to help us survive and make sense of the hurt. Nick Laird creates a world of characters spanning from Ireland to Papua New Guinea who struggle with relationships where they love and feel loved in return. The sisters Liz and Alison, with opposite personalities but the same childhood traumas, struggle to find and maintain fulfilling relationships. Their parents, cling to their faith and sense of normalcy to heal the wounds of a terminal illness. Alison's second husband Stephen holds onto his faith in order to deserve a new life after committing an atrocious act of violence in his youth. Away in far PNG, Belef handles her grief and pain by creating a new cult religion where her dead speak to her and call for vengeance. All these characters are in pain and deal with their hurt in the way that makes most sense to them, sometimes even by creating new gods. This is not a light story to read, but it is a well written, thought provoking one.

In Nick Laird’s new novel, Modern Gods, the politics of Northern Ireland runs parallel to that of Christian missionaries and an indigenous religious cult in New Ulster, Papua New Guinea. After a bad first marriage, Alison marries Stephen, only to later learn of his involvement as a member of the Irish Republican Army in a mass shooting. Her sister, Liz, also escaping a bad relationship, agrees to host a documentary for the BBC on the Story and its leader, Belef, and travels to Papua New Guinea, only to become enmeshed in the struggles there between the two religious factions. I found the alternating stories interesting, but the ending somewhat dissatisfying. Although describing her marriage, I do think Alison sums it up best. “A second marriage meant substituting old ceremonies and traditions with different ones, meant trading in the old gods for new, but Alison couldn’t help it; she didn’t believe in it any longer. She’d lost her faith and found the new gods were false gods.”

If you have no knowledge of Ireland's past and the religious atrocities that took place years ago, then this book will be confusing. It starts with murders and then intersperses the next few chapters with glimpses of the victims lives. This in itself is confusing and would have been better done as a prologue. Those two things make this book hard to read, hard to follow and leaving the reader hoping it gets better. Unfortunately, it doesn't. The sisters are engaged in their own parallel storylines that the author tries to intertwine in certain aspects and sometimes does, but almost in an abstract way. Liz reports on a supposed new religion and becomes involved more than she wanted. The basis of the religion is nothing new and is really pretty stereotypical. Very disappointing. Alison shallowly makes a poor decision and has to face the consequences. And thrown in for good measure is their Mom dealing with a terminal illness. None of the resolutions are satisfactory and it leaves the reader distracted and wondering if something was missed along the way. The ending is abrupt and probably will be puzzling to some readers. Others, like me, will just be glad you made it to the end. I cannot recommend this book.

This book is difficult to get into, but oh boy, was it worth it! It's more thought-provoking than for the purpose of entertainment. I've wanted to read more Ireland related literature since Anne Enright. Modern Gods provided me with that. I am looking forward to getting a hard copy to make this a permanent part of my library. And I am going to stock up on more books by this author!

I struggled to get into this book, but am immensely glad that I stuck with it. The story of the two sisters was captivating and I loved the immersion between their stories. There was a gripping historical history that evolved and opened up throughout the story.

Well it took me by surprise this booked opened up with a murder scene. It shows the perception of two sisters life past and present events;how they see things and how they feel. The whole complexity of family and how each person influences their views of life and each experience molds their perception specifically the pained past. In between the lives of Alison and Liz there are synopsis of the individuals who took place in that tragic night of murder. Its a deep thought perceptive book not one of pure pleasure but one that makes you think and reason how each person in a different life in your surroundings comes to together in a tragic night even when we are worlds apart there are moments unknowingly that brings us together and binds us.

Fans of Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible will rejoice to find a story just as invested in examining the threads that tie us all together, even when we are seemingly worlds apart. Both painful and hopeful in equal measure, Nick Laird's Modern Gods navigates how the past and future live within us all through the familiar lens of family. While Alison and Liz seem to be as different as any strangers can be despite being sisters, we follow their journeys which, while still intensely personal, mirror and reflect off of each other's challenging their divisive perspectives on life, self, and how to live. The past is especially important, as it's revealed to shape their world views, each sister's own version of the past presenting consequences that reach deep into their own sense of selves. Modern Gods not only forces us to examine how the past shapes the world and our place in it, but also dares to suggest how we may all move forward in it all.

This is not a book to read for entertainment, it’s one to read for education, for philosophical reasons. If you have an emotional attachment to Ireland and its history, it’s a bloody painful one to get through. The novel opens violent and bloody so the first impression you’re given is one of monsters especially with the Halloween theme placed over the scene and no explanation given for the massacre. Interspersed throughout the story you’ll suddenly come across a small story snuck in about one of the people who was part of that massacre then the main story picks up again so faces are put with the bodies from that horrific opening. Eventually an explanation is given late in the book as to who was involved and why. One of the best lines is when a supporting character is trying to comfort another and tells her “I wish someone would explain Northern Ireland to me,” and the main character replied, “Me too.” That pretty much sums up the history and turbulence in which this story is set; no one, not even those who live there, can ever fully wrap their hearts and minds around it. At its heart this is a story about the messiness of families, relationships and trying to navigate a world where boundaries don’t exist or move as fluid as water. Thrown in early, the author highlights the generational issue when it comes to dating that it seems increasingly newer generations of people are deciding at an exponential level that the ‘norms’ of dating mean to have sex with whoever is available regardless of gender and monogamous relationships exist only in history books; that could just be a thing in the States and not the rest of the world. The rules of motherhood were one of his better introspections on human behavior because any parent being honest with themselves would agree they made perfect sense. At times he used the “f-word” so often I wondered if he had quota or if he was trying to create a drinking game – take a shot every time it appears. Since a good chunk of the story is set in Ireland he did at least use phrase and terminology appropriate for the country and people which is appreciated though I’m sure if Americans read this they’ll need to keep google open to understand what he means or we’ll be having reviewers claim Laird’s homophobic for using the word “fag” because they didn’t know that means “cigarette” in the UK. You shake your head but I’ve seen it. The reader needs some kind of familiarity with what has happened, and on a smaller level continues to happen, in the North of Ireland to truly appreciate the story. Even small things will lose their humor if they don’t understand passages like when he describes his characters leaving County Derry and the context as to why the sign showing they’re leaving the area has been defaced. Or how another sign sums up so accurately the convoluted politics of the area and times: “In Texas murder gets you the electric chair. In Magherafelt you get chair of the council.” For me the hardest part to read was when one of the characters tries to justify what he did by saying, “They were killing us for being Protestant, just for existing. We had to strike back.” I’m an Irish Catholic who lost family at the hands of Protestants simply because my family is Catholic. Our whole country was being run for hundreds of years by people who wanted to kill us, exterminate us, just for being Catholic; it was a genocide that England has never been punished for. Laws were created and enforced making everything about us illegal even into the late 1900s; so we began to fight back. It’s always been hard that for years, even now, they justified what they did and called us terrorists for fighting for our right to exist. All they had to do was let us live and treat us as equals and none of this would have happened. As an Irish Catholic it was interesting reading the dynamics in an Irish Protestant family because if you didn’t know their religious leanings they very well could have been from the other side. Their struggles, their faith, their chaos and confusion with the politics of the area as well as how they feel regarding their own who use violence is exactly the same as us. When one of the characters is being interviewed for his part in killing innocent people just because they were Catholic he sounds so justified, even thrilled, I felt my soul break from the pain then fill with rage; it may be a fictional story but these kind of people and these events really happen and that’s where the emotional attachment hits thanks to Laird’s descriptive writing. It would have been easy to fall into old genetic patterns and just hold onto that hatred if Laird hadn’t shown that just as with Catholics there were Protestants who were truly good people who wanted nothing to do with the violence and maybe we needed to remember we can’t continue to judge and punish them for their religious beliefs if we want the same. I only had two issues overall with the book. One was with the Part 2 of the story where one of the characters goes off to New Ulster to research a cult like group where Christians are painted as invaders destroying indigenous cultures (which they have) and are willing to cause death to spread their faith (something I’m not even going to touch). I didn’t really get why the author included this storyline as it didn’t seem to have anything to do with the bulk of the book unless it was just because the place she went to was called “New Ulster” like it was some kind of tie in to the Ulster in Ireland. Apparently the author just made that place up as I can’t find anywhere in Papua New Guinea called “New Ulster”. I guess you could stretch and say it was like a mirror to the Catholic-Protestant multi-centuries war in Ireland as you have an invading Christian faith bent on wiping out the existing people but whatever it still felt like it was 2 separate books meshed together and imperfectly at that. The other issue I had was the bias towards Protestants being the innocent victims who were wrongly being murdered by Catholics. Although Laird did paint nearly all but one of his Protestant characters as having some humanity and not being pro-murder towards Catholics there was still never anyone pointing out WHY the violence and issues even existed; it’s not like Catholics just woke up one day and decided “Hey we’re bored let’s set off some bombs or shoot up people!” It’s a verifiable truth the history is a convoluted mess but you can’t explain anything or tell a story properly without showing both sides.


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