Irish writers are often noted both for their irony and for their humour, and Joyce uses a great deal of comic irony in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Irony is not always comic. It is ironic when a hero kills his own son not knowing who he is, but this irony is wholly tragic. It is ironic that a Christmas party meant to be the occasion of peace and goodwill should turn into a violent family row and a virulent exchange of abuse. It is sad too, and Stephen feels its sadness, but it also has its comic side. We smile when Dante, a rather self-important person conscious of her own dignity, is turned into a screaming virago quivering with rage, and when Mr Dedalus lets off steam in comic abuse of Church dignitaries.
Humorous irony in literature often revolves around the way self-important people are brought down to earth with a bang. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen is the main concern of the author and he happens to be a rather self-important and pretentious person. Joyce often punctures his pretentiousness – not in his own eyes and not in the eyes of other characters, but in the reader’s eyes. For instance, when Stephen makes his righteous protest against being unjustly punished by Father Dolan, he pictures himself like some great public figure of history standing up against tyranny. The little boy appealing to his headmaster sees himself in this grand light and when his protest has been accepted, he resolves not to take advantage personally of his vanquished foe, and we smile at his childish self-importance.
Stephen’s romantic dreams often evoke this indulgent smile in the reader. He pictures himself, at the end of a long series of heroic adventures, proudly declining Mercede’s offer of grapes. When he helps to lead a gang of boys, he sets himself apart from the others by not adopting their symbols and uniform, because he has read that Napoleon also remained unadorned. These comic comparisons made by the little boy are rich in ironic humour.
These are of course the kind of imaginative exaggerations which are common to childhood. But they lead to less usual extravagances in the growing artist. When a boy sits down, as Stephen does, to write a poem to a girl, and begins it by imitating Lord Byron’s habit of entitling such poems, but finishes up staring at himself admiringly in the mirror, the gap between supposed intention and reality is wide. Later Stephen imagines a stage triumph before Emma’s eyes and rushes off to claim his due of feminine admiration only to finish up in a squalid corner of the city amid the smell of horse urine. These contrasts are the stuff of irony. So is the contrast between the boy’s glamorous dreams of himself as a romantic lover and the actual experience to which they lead in a city brothel.
The retreat sermons are a sustained ironic piece, and the irony this time is not primarily at the expense of the hero but of the Catholic Church and its clergy. The sermons seem to start reasonably enough but gradually become a burlesque (the Tommy Tiernan treatment!) of the kind of teaching given in retreats. That is to say, they follow the course of traditional moral exhortation but push the examples to such an extreme that the effect is laughable. A further irony is that the ingenuity with which torments are seemingly devised by God and the relish with which they are described by the priest are not congruous with notions of a loving God and a religion of love. Equally ironic is the meticulous and literal way in which Stephen tries to mortify his senses and discipline his mind. The sermons plainly have had the effect on him which the priests had hoped for. Now that Stephen is repentant we naturally warm to him in sympathy, but we still smile at the degree of vanity and self-centeredness he shows in trying to model himself anew.
In some respects, the irony at Stephen’s expense is sharpest in the last chapter of the book. For when he becomes a student his aspirations are aimed higher and higher. The contrast between these aspirations and the reality around him is often laughably sharp. At the end of Chapter 4, for instance, Stephen has enjoyed raptures expressed in language of lyrical beauty. At the beginning of Chapter 5, he is drinking watery tea and chewing crusts of fried bread at a dirty kitchen table. Joyce puts these two episodes together with comic intent. Again Stephen propounds his high doctrine of beauty to his fellow students who, for the most part, have only crude and vulgar witticisms to contribute to the conversation.
Stephen dismisses real living beauty from his mind in order to theorise about beauty with his intellect. Inspired suddenly by Emma’s beauty, he writes a poem in a language utterly removed from the idiom of living human relationships. It is poetry so precious and “high-falutin” that real feeling is left out. The irony of praising Emma so richly in secret and virtually snubbing her when she makes natural friendly approaches is both amusing and rather sad. Not for the first time, we want to shake Stephen to try to knock some sense into him; above all to make him a little more human.
Stephen chooses exile from his native land mainly because of his growing disenchantment with Irish society on many levels. Indeed, his final decision to fly the nets which are impeding his development as an artist is achieved following a series of struggles with authority from which he ultimately decides to flee. His sense of injustice is first stirred when he is a young schoolboy. When Wells asks him if he kisses his mother at bedtime, he discovers that whether he should say Yes or No he will be laughed at. Wells has already shouldered him into the ditch, and this first experience of school bullying makes him ill. Christmas at home, which is expected to be all warmth and friendship and happiness after the chilly misery at school, turns out to be a time of angry political quarrels among adults who are all supposed to be devoted to Ireland. When Stephen returns to school after suffering the misfortune of having his glasses broken he suffers the injustice of being punished for it. Priests are supposed to be good, he thinks, but they get angry and behave cruelly. To make things worse, he later discovers that his bold protest against injustice becomes a subject for laughter among those responsible for the injustice.
Stephen’s confidence in the moral authority of the powers-that-be in Clongowes is thus undermined and this is also accompanied by the undermining in his respect for his father. The visit to Cork reveals Mr Dedalus as a boastful, flattery-loving, gas-bag and feckless drunkard, drinking and boasting while all the time his financial affairs are deteriorating and the home is getting more squalid. Stephen’s boyish attempt, when he gets his prize money, to stem the tide of sordid poverty that seems to be sweeping over his family proves absurdly inadequate. His attempt, after confession, to remodel himself on the pattern of perfection taught by the church, leads to extravagant feats of self-discipline that deny his most powerful aspirations towards life and beauty. When the suggestion is made that he should consider a vocation to the priesthood, an instinctive inner conviction assures him that his future cannot be in subjection to an ordered system like that of the Church. The vision of the wading girl stirs the religious outburst, ‘Heavenly God!’ and we recognise in the way the landscape calls up in him poetic phrases that satisfy his thirst for harmony between the outer world and his inner emotional life, that he is to be a future artist and not a future priest.
It is from a sordid scene at home and past the mad cries from a nunnery that Stephen makes his symbolic progress across Dublin to the university, where study opens up a world of exciting philosophical thought. But even here there is no prospect of ultimate life-long satisfaction. He quickly comes to realise that the university teachers are also limited and unimaginative, and the students’ enthusiasm is stirred by causes with which Stephen cannot sympathise. The idealistic support for the Czar’s peace initiative strikes him as sentimental. He feels unable to commit himself to corporate demands or protests. The enthusiasm of students such as Davin for the cause of national independence, the revival of native culture, the enmity against England seems to require a commitment that mortgages life in advance of living it. Stephen senses his own Irish inheritance, not as a great blessing, but as a series of fetters imposed by history willy-nilly on his generation. Moreover, he knows from the past that Irish nationalist movements tend to lead, not to victorious achievements by the leaders, but to their betrayal and martyrdom.
Stephen himself demands of life, above all, freedom in which he can work creatively as an artist. Closely associated with the demand for freedom is his sensitive responsiveness to beauty in the spoken and written word. He has found in his home an increasing sordidness and crudity that are the antithesis of beauty. He has found in the Church a cruelty hostile to justice and freedom, for the caning with the pandybat at Clongowes is of a piece with the horrendous torments pictured in Father Arnell’s sermons as the future eternal lot of millions of fellow human beings. He has found in the political life of Ireland a collection of inherited attitudes and passions that embitter family relationships, which turn young students into obsessed fanatics, and that claim people’s thoughts and energies before they have had time to develop their own individualities.
The upshot is that Stephen turns the rebellious slogan of Lucifer, in turning against God, ‘I will not serve’, into his own motto in rejecting the demands of home, fatherland, and Church, and dedicating himself to the task of expressing himself freely as an artist.
The decision takes shape in his mind in association with thoughts of the career of his mythical ‘ancestor, Daedalus, who found escape in flight from imprisonment in a labyrinth. Stephen has often trod the maze of Dublin streets seeking escape of one kind or another, whether in the confessional or the brothel. Only when he crosses the bridge to Bull Island and stares out to sea does he glimpse the vision of true fulfilment. He cannot find this fulfilment without flight. His mother prays, he says, that, ‘I may learn in my own life and away from home and friends what the heart is and what it feels.’ So he sets out, ‘to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.’ His final prayer is not directed to God but to his role model, Daedalus. He prays: ‘Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.’
In 1904 the magazine DANA made an important contribution to world literature by rejecting a short story by a then-unknown Irishman called James Joyce. Joyce sought the advice of George Russell (AE), who suggested that he should rewrite it as a novel. Joyce took his advice so seriously that he eventually produced a huge work of fiction which he titled Stephen Hero. This book was never published during his lifetime; most of it was destroyed by its dissatisfied author who decided to try again, reworking and reducing the material into five chapters. Twenty publishers rejected this new version before it finally appeared in 1916. Joyce gave his first novel the same title as that of the rejected short story: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In 1944 three years after his death, the surviving fragment of the original novel was published as Stephen Hero.
Brief Bio of James Joyce
Since A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is largely autobiographical, it is worth knowing something of the life and works of its author. James Joyce was born in Dublin in 1882, the eldest of eleven children. His father, John Joyce, came from a wealthy Cork family and had inherited a small private income. He was an ardent admirer of Charles Stewart Parnell, for whom he had worked as an election agent. He was rewarded with the post of Tax Collector in Dublin, a lucrative position which allowed him and his growing family to live in considerable comfort and send his eldest son to Clongowes College. However, his fecklessness, his extravagance and his fondness for drink cost him his job and reduced his family to poverty. James was withdrawn from Clongowes and sent to Belvedere College, also run by the Jesuits. He proved a hard-working student, winning a number of scholarships, which in a manner typical of his father he squandered on expensive family outings.
From 1898 to 1902 Joyce was a student at University College Dublin, then run by the Jesuit order. When he graduated with a degree in languages he decided to continue studying as a medical student. However, unhappy at UCD, he went to Paris but returned to Ireland when he received news of his mother’s imminent death. To provide himself with a livelihood he took up a teaching post.
Then he met Nora Barnacle and his life was transformed. He persuaded her to elope with him to Trieste where he worked as a teacher of languages. There his children, Giorgio and Lucia, were born. His brother, Stanislaus, joined them in 1905, giving Joyce invaluable financial and moral support.
Joyce returned to Dublin on two occasions. On his first visit, he tried to set up the first cinema in Ireland, but the project failed. In 1914 he came home again to publish Dubliners, but once again his trip was in vain. Bitterly disappointed at his treatment, Joyce vowed never to set foot in his native land again. He was true to his word.
In 1914 Joyce took his family to Zurich, remaining there for the duration of the Great War. He then returned to Trieste but soon left for Paris, where he was to live until the Second World War forced him to move back to safety in neutral Zurich.
Meanwhile, in 1916 Dubliners was finally published, followed soon afterwards by A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Then on his fortieth birthday, his masterpiece, Ulysses, appeared, and almost immediately established his reputation as the foremost writer of his time.
Joyce’s great success as an author was marred by personal tragedy. His daughter Lucia’s mental health deteriorated to the point where Joyce could not care for her himself and had to have her committed to an institution. In 1931 his father died. All this time his eyesight was weakening, and though he underwent many painful operations, his sight continued to fail until he was almost blind. Having returned to Zurich on the outbreak of the Second World War he continued to write, working on his great experimental novel Finnegan’s Wake. His health continued to decline and he eventually died on 13th January 1941 of a perforated ulcer.
A Note on the Structure of the Novel
The novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a carefully constructed novel divided into five chapters or episodes. Each of these sections deals with an important stage in the development of the hero, Stephen Dedalus, from early childhood to adulthood.
In Chapter One we meet Stephen as a baby-talking infant. We learn of his first years in Clongowes College, where he is unjustly caned by Father Dolan. An important event is the Christmas dinner, during which a bitter argument between Dante and Mr Casey reflects the troubled state of Ireland after the Parnell Split.
In Chapter Two, Stephen’s family suffers a decline in living standards due to Mr Dedalus’ feckless ways and is forced to move from Bray to Blackrock. Young Stephen is taken out of Clongowes and sent to Belvedere College. Important incidents are the encounter with Emma Cleary, the school play, and Stephen’s visit to Cork with his father, Simon. This chapter ends with Stephen’s sexual awakening as seen in the episode with the prostitute.
Chapter Three is largely concerned with religion. Filled with sexual guilt, Stephen listens to the famous sermon on Hell. He resolves to end his sinful life and seeks grace through confession and self-mortification. As a result, he achieves peace of mind and inner calm.
Chapter Four sees Stephen invited to become a Jesuit when his piety is noticed by his teachers. He rejects the call, opting instead for Art. This turning away from religion and back to the world is symbolised by the girl on the beach at the end of this section.
In Chapter Five, Stephen is now a student at University College Dublin. Through his discussions with fellow students, we discover his rejection of nationalism and the nationalistic art that was then in vogue. He expounds for us his theory of aesthetics. The novel ends with his defiant refusal to serve God or country. Instead, he will seek through exile to find the freedom he needs to create his own art.
Major Themes in the Novel
Joyce’s first novel is concerned to show the stages in the development of the artist. We are presented with the hero Stephen Dedalus first as a child, then as a schoolboy, later as a devout Catholic, and finally as a university student. Family, teachers, sex, religion, and country, forge fetters for the would-be artist; to create he must break free and become his own person. This he achieves in the end with his famous declaration: “Non serviam” (I shall not serve), thereby turning his back on his family, his country, and his religion to devote himself totally to his new religion of Art.
Style and Technique in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a naturalistic novel narrated by an invisible author who remains aloof and apparently removed from his tale. However, the viewpoint through which we see things is clearly Stephen’s. This not only makes him the focus of our attention but it also invites us to sympathise with him throughout. The language is also used to reflect Stephen’s central role and importance. Thus in the opening chapter, we read the prattle of childhood as the infant Stephen tries to come to terms with his surroundings. Later the schoolboy slang reveals his perceptions of life in a boarding school. At all times the language is suited to whatever stage Stephen is then at.
Religious symbols and liturgical terms abound in Chapter Three. They also help in the final chapter to elevate the tone and solemnise the young artist’s preoccupation with aesthetics at that stage. Even though Joyce is at great pains to reject his Catholic faith he displays here a deep appreciation of Catholic rituals. His friend Cranley points out this apparent inconsistency:
It is a curious thing, do you know, how your mind is supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve.
This accusation, which could also be levelled at many other Irish novelists, is very relevant. They, including James Joyce, seem determined to reject Catholicism because it seems at variance with their artistic imagination. Yet, as Eamon Maher states ‘they cannot avoid being ‘supersaturated’ with its vestiges’.
Symbols, including religious ones, are important to Joyce as a method of heightening his themes and maintaining links throughout the narrative. For example, Stephen’s name reminds us of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, and the significance of this is seen in the young man’s willingness to sacrifice all for the sake of his art. His surname, Dedalus, evokes the labyrinth-maker, the inventor, the flier who dared to aspire too high. Other symbols used by Joyce in this novel are water, representing death, cleansing and renewal; the Church as mother; Ireland as the ‘sow that eats her farrow’.
To create a real and convincing background for Stephen, there is a painstaking attention to detail. Names of actual places are numerous in the text, e.g. Clongowes, Belvedere, Lower Mount Street. Real people are also introduced, such as Parnell, and Michael Davitt, W.S. Gilbert. The squalor of Stephen’s home life is vividly captured in Joyce’s description of the meal table. He is not content just to appeal to our sense of sight. We hear the sound of cricket balls hitting bats in Clongowes; we smell horse’s urine, and while we listen to the sermon on Hell in Chapter Three we feel the horrific torments of the Damned.
Walter Pater, the author of Renaissance, who had such an enormous influence on Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetic Movement, also affected Joyce in his attitude to Art. Pater and the followers of the Aesthetic Movement believed that art should be of paramount importance. That Joyce was especially sympathetic to this view is most apparent in the final section of the novel. Another writer much admired by Joyce was Cardinal Newman, the founder of University College Dublin whose style he sought to emulate.
A Detailed Analysis of a Sample Passage from the Novel
“He looked northward to Howth. The sea had fallen below the line of seawrack on the shallow side of the breakwater and already the tide was running out fast along the foreshore. Already one long oval bank of sand lay warm and dry amid the wavelets. Here and there warm isles of sand gleamed above the shallow tides and about the isles and around the long bank and amid the shallow currents of the bridge were lightclad figures, waving and delving.
In a few moments he was barefoot, his stockings folded in his pockets, and his canvas shoes dangling by their knotted laces over his shoulders and picking a pointed salteaten stick out of the jetsam among the rocks, he clambered down the slope of the breakwater.
There was a long rivulet in the strand and as he waded slowly up its course, he wondered at the endless drift of seaweed. Emerald and black and russet and olive, it moved beneath the current, swaying and turning. The water of the rivulet was dark with endless drift and mirrored the highdrifting clouds.
The clouds were drifting above him silently and silently the seatangle was drifting below him; and the grey warm air was still: and a new wild life was singing in his veins.”
This fine piece of writing, which occurs at a crucial point towards the end of Chapter Four, illustrates many of the features of Joyce’s writing style.
Firstly, we notice his attention to detail; e.g.: ‘the pointed salteaten stick’. The word ‘salteaten’, like ‘jetsam’, ‘lightclad’, ‘seatangle’ shows the author’s fondness for coining new words.
Secondly, we view the scene through Stephen’s eyes, and so his feelings as he observes the seascape are subtly revealed, while the narrator himself remains invisible and aloof.
Repetition is another device to concentrate our minds and create connections in the writing. Notice how often we meet the words ‘warm’, ‘silently’, ‘clouds’ and ‘drifting’.
Symbolism is everywhere. The clouds are the difficulties of the past, now seen drifting away; the rivulet is a new life beginning; the sky is the greatness the young artist seeks and aspires to, as well as being associated in our minds with Dedalus.
There is also a sense throughout the piece that we are building towards a climax. The feelings of Stephen are conveyed by words like ‘warm and dry’, ‘new wild life’ and ‘singing’. The final mood is one of joyous freedom.
Sound is also important, as we would quickly realise were we to read the passage aloud. Its lyricism is enhanced by alliteration (‘salteaten stick’) and assonance (‘wild life’). Stephen has arrived at a crucial moment in his life. His decision not to become a Jesuit has just been made, and now he sees his future as an artist calling him like a vocation. It is the turning of the tide for him. He is exhilarated by the prospects ahead: he has now freed himself from the restraints of family, country, and religion. That is why he feels ‘a new wild life was singing in his veins’.
Having completed A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce too had arrived at a new stage in his development. He was now forever finished with conventional fiction. Already his mind was preoccupied with the book that was to become his great masterpiece. Ulysses was about to be born, and with its birth, the young exile from Dublin would be hailed as the greatest novelist of the century and one of the greatest innovators of all time.
However, Stephen Dedalus had survived and it is the same Stephen we meet on the first page of Ulysses. However, he is not the hero this time; that role is reserved for Leopold Bloom, but Stephen is second only in importance to him. Thus Joyce links together two of the finest works of fiction ever written. The hero of the rejected short story lived on in the imagination of his creator for more than twenty years to become one of the best known and most written about characters of all time.
 Eamon Maher writing in The Ticket in The Irish Times, ‘The half-life and death of the Irish Catholic novel’, Saturday, December 23rd, 2017.
You might also like to read a more detailed character sketch of Stephenhere
In one of her many interviews after the publication of ‘Foster’ in 2010, Claire Keegan challenged her would-be readers:
“It’s essentially about trusting in the reader’s intelligence rather than labouring a point. To work on the level of suggestion is what I aim for in all my writing.”
More than likely you will be studying this text as part of your Comparative Studies module for Leaving Cert English Higher Level. Your first task is to read the short story/novella (all 88 pages!) and begin to form your own opinion as to what is happening in the story. Trust your own judgement and use or discard the following notes as you judge them to be useful (or not) to you in your comparing and contrasting this text with at least two others from the suggested list given to you by your teacher.
All page references are from the beautifully produced Faber and Faber paperback edition
About Claire Keegan
Born in County Wicklow in 1968, she is the youngest of a large family. Keegan travelled to New Orleans, Louisiana when she was seventeen and studied English and Political Science at Loyola University. She returned to Ireland in 1992 and later lived for a year in Cardiff, Wales, where she undertook an MA in creative writing and taught undergraduates at the University of Wales.
Keegan’s first collection of short stories was Antarctica (1999). Her second collection of stories, Walk the Blue Fields, was published in 2007. September 2010 brought the publication of the ‘long, short story’ Foster. American writer Richard Ford, who selected Foster as winner of the Davy Byrnes Irish Writing Award 2009, wrote in the winning citation of Keegan’s ‘thrilling’ instinct for the right words and her ‘patient attention to life’s vast consequence and finality’.
Keegan has won the inaugural William Trevor Prize, the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, the Olive Cook Award and the Davy Byrnes Irish Writing Award 2009. Other awards include The Hugh Leonard Bursary, The Macaulay Fellowship, The Martin Healy Prize, The Kilkenny Prize and The Tom Gallon Award. Keegan has twice been the recipient of the Francis MacManus Award. She was also a Wingate Scholar. She was a visiting professor at Villanova University in 2008. Keegan was the Ireland Fund Artist-in-Residence in the Celtic Studies Department of St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto in March 2009.
The story is set in rural Wexford and is a perfect example of a Bildungsroman novel. Foster is narrated by a young girl who is fostered out to another family, the Kinsellas, ‘her mother’s people’, for the summer months. There is constant juxtaposition between her own family and her new foster family. Her expectations are influenced by what has already occurred in her own family. The Kinsellas are kind and caring, the epitome of all that is good in foster parents, giving the girl the space to develop and feel valued. It is a coming-of-age story and one that illuminates the contrasting lives of the families, one struggling and overcrowded, the other contented but childless, the rural community that they live in and, by extension, Ireland itself.
Blessedly, Keegan’s Ireland is not the familiar land of misery, abuse and constant drizzle, but a place of community, common decency and, most surprising of all, sunshine – we are treated to an idyllic summer in the Sunny South East. The narrator leaves her homeplace after Sunday Mass in Clonegal and is driven by her father towards the coast somewhere between Gorey and Courtown. Claire Keegan explains:
“For me, the fact that the story unfolds in summer was primarily a practical matter. For her to go away, it would have to be a summer. I made it hot because, given that it is so long since we’ve had [a hot summer] it was pleasurable to write about, but because it also deepened the happiness of the summer.”
Though it seems, in its depiction of the slow rhythms of rural life, to take place in a much older Ireland, Foster is set in 1981. The reader only finds this out when Kinsella tells his wife, in passing, of a news report about the death of an IRA hunger striker. It is an arresting moment, one that makes the story seem suddenly both more contemporary and more ominous.
“It’s an examination of home and an examination of neglect. I don’t trust that home is necessarily where one finds one’s happiness. Families can be awful places, just as they can be glorious and loving. Also, I’m very interested in what we can do without, what we can go without. To a child, for instance, the difference between being able to be well-fed when you are growing, and not, is enormous.”
The little girl, no more than seven or eight arrives at the Kinsellas farm and discovers that for once she is the centre of attention because the couple are childless. Also in sharp contrast to her own home in Clonegal here, ‘there is plenty of food and money to spare’. The girl is uneasy at first but soon grows to feel comfortable in a household where she finds love and affection, something she’s never encountered before.
The reason she is being temporarily fostered is that her mother is near the delivery of another in a long line of children. She is not told how long she will stay here. Over the course of what, in effect, was her summer holidays from school, this charming, precocious, needy child is exposed to a life far different from what she has had at home. Brilliantly, though, Keegan does not always clearly tell what is different; her subtle suggestions are, perhaps, even more potent. The Kinsella home is supposed to be one where “Petal” is assured that there are no secrets, but she does, in a most realistic manner, eventually learn that there is one. This secret is revealed by a neighbourhood gossip and it threatens to destroy her childhood idyll. By summer’s end, her mother’s letter arrives, and she is driven home.
Foster is a story of love and loss, of how familial grief can be transformed into tenderness, of how hope endures and, with it, kindness. It is, at times, almost unbearably poignant in its evocation of childhood innocence and adult stoicism. It also explores the age-old dilemma of what constitutes a secret and what should be told and what should remain forever untold.
THEMES AND ISSUES
There are a number of themes and issues raised in the novel and these can be compared and contrasted with the other texts on your Comparative Course. The main themes dealt with here are:
The Theme of Family
The Theme of Growing up/Childhood
This short story or novella has all the classic elements of a Bildungsroman novel. In its classic form, it entails a young, uneducated person being forced to face the harsh realities of life before they would normally be expected to do so. It is a coming of age novel where the young narrator is taken from her home and ‘fostered out’ to Aunt Edna Kinsella and her husband John for the duration of the school summer holidays in 1981.
It is a fast-moving cinematic type story and is narrated by a young seven or eight-year-old girl (her actual age is never mentioned). When we meet her first she is nameless, one of many children in her family. She is referred to at different stages throughout the novella as ‘Child’, ‘a Leanbh’, ‘Girleen’, ‘Long Legs’ and finally John Kinsella calls her ‘Petal’ three times towards the end of the story. We are not told whether this is her real name or his own pet name for her. Nobody else refers to her by the name Petal except John Kinsella. We are never given her family surname during the course of the story.
The novella is a journey of discovery for the girl who appears to the reader as very observant, charming, precocious, and needy. As she journeys from her parents’ home and comes to be comfortable in her temporary foster home she is exposed to a life far different from what she has been accustomed to.
As she journeys towards her new foster home for the summer she imagines opposing and contrasting scenarios in her head:
The man will be her size. He will take me to town in the tractor and buy me red lemonade and crisps. Or he’ll make me clean out sheds and pull ragweed and docks out of the fields (P. 4).
She is keenly observant and when she arrives at her new home she notices the way her Da, Dan, and John Kinsella interact. They indulge in a classic Irish form of verbal non-communication, talking about the weather and ‘the price of cattle, the EEC, (and) butter mountains’. She notes that ‘it is something I am used to, this way men have of not talking’ (p.6). She also notices early on that here in her new temporary home ‘there is no sign, anywhere, of a child’ (p.8).
She is also very aware of the lies her Da tells Aunt Edna about the hay saving. She tells us that ‘he is given to lying about things that would be nice if they were true’ (p.10). She notices the difference between her father and John Kinsella who helps his wife to lay the table in preparation for lunch. She tells us that her mother is always busy:
With my mother it is all work: us, the butter-making, the dinners, the washing up and getting up and getting ready for Mass and school, weaning calves, and hiring men to plough and harrow the fields, stretching the money and setting the alarm (p.13).
She quickly realises that her new temporary home ‘is a different type of house. Here there is room and time to think and grow. There may even be money to spare’ (p.13). All comparisons are made for us from her own limited experience of home. For example, she is glad to notice that John Kinsella and Aunt Edna ‘sleep together’ (p.17). Declan Kiberd comments on this keen vigilance of the child and says, ‘it suggests something not quite right, a fear that past traumas may be repeated in the present with the Kinsellas … the feeling of past and possible hurt hangs in the air’. This vigilance in her new home also suggests to us a child forever on guard.
One of the central themes and motifs running through the story is that of family secrets; what needs to be told and what should be left unsaid. Aunt Edna tells her that ‘there are no secrets in this house’ because ‘where’s there’s a secret … there’s shame, and shame is something we can do without’ (p.21). The young girl finds herself wishing ‘that this place without shame or secrets could be my home’ (p.24).
She wakes on her first morning ‘in this new place to the old feeling of being hot and cold, all at once’ (p.28). It turns out she has, not for the first time, wet her bed during the night and this introduces the notion of a troubled child. This is one of the strong, undeveloped undercurrents in the story. Aunt Edna notices straight away and handles the situation with admirable tact. Indeed these new foster parents quickly turn all stereotypes on their ear. They are both model parents and Claire Keegan even manages to dispel some of the notions we have about wicked foster parents – this is particularly true of John Kinsella. The narrator realises that they both want the best for her and that Aunt Edna, in particular, ‘wants me to get things right, to teach me’ (p.30).
Aunt Edna cleverly devises a scheme to cure the bed wetting. She tells the young girl that she has a secret recipe to help improve her complexion. The secret remedy consists of eating Weetabix which the young girl says ‘tastes a bit like the dry bark of a tree’. She eats five while watching the Nine O’Clock News on RTE. She wakes the following morning and ‘the old feeling is not there’ anymore. Aunt Edna tells her that her ‘complexion is better already’ and ‘all you need is minding’ (p.36).
The Kinsella household is a busy, busy place and is sharply juxtaposed with the narrator’s home place:
She showed me the big, white machine that plugs in, a freezer where what she calls ‘perishables’ can be stored for months without rotting. We make ice cubes, go over every inch of the floors with a hovering machine, dig new potatoes, make coleslaw and two loaves, and then she takes the clothes in off the line while they are still damp and sets up a board and starts ironing … (p.32).
It is obvious to us that her own home has few of these modern labour saving devices and she notices how both John Kinsella and his wife work hard all day as a united team. Her view of men has been coloured by her mother’s experience and she declares to Kinsella at one stage ‘Mammy says I shouldn’t take a present of a man’. He, however, reassures her and says ‘Still and all, there’s no two men the same’ (p.33).
The young girl settles into a routine at her new home and sunny day follows sunny day. She visits Gorey where she ‘is togged out’ in new clothes and she is given some pocket money for the first time ever. One evening she is taken to Michael Redmond’s wake in the local area and she observes the local customs, the close community and the support for the family by their near neighbours. She experiences many epiphany moments throughout the novella – it’s as if she has an expectation that she will soon awake from a dream or that these good times can’t continue. As she walks to the wake with John and Edna she has a premonition that there is, ‘something darker in the air, of something that might come and fall and change things’ (p.49).
Later, one of the neighbours, Mildred, volunteers to look after the young girl and take her to play with her children rather than having her stay on at the wake. She senses straight away that Mildred is ‘eaten alive with curiosity’ and has to suffer a barrage of questions about the Kinsellas. It is only then that she discovers the big unspoken secret at the heart of the story: the Kinsellas had a young son who drowned tragically in the slurry pit and she has been wearing his clothes since she arrived at their house. Mildred adds a melodramatic flourish to the end of her story: their hair turned white overnight which is a Gothic touch worthy of David Lynch’s ‘Twin Peaks’! The narrator is left aghast:
I wonder at the clothes and how I’d worn them and the boy in the wallpaper and how I never put it all together (p.57).
When the Kinsellas come to collect her they soon realise that she has discovered their secret. Innocently she informs them what Mildred has revealed to her:
‘She told me you had a little boy who followed the dog into the slurry tank and died, and that I wore his clothes to Mass last Sunday’ (p.60)
Eventually, the summer draws to an end and the shops begin to display Back to School items. The weather turns and the letter arrives from her mother to say that there has been a new arrival at home and that she is to return home to prepare for school. She makes a final trip to the well down the fields and as she bends down to fill her bucket, in another Gothic moment, ‘another hand just like mine seems to come out of the water and pull me in’ (p.76). Luckily, she makes her way back to the farmhouse but develops a chill after her near-disastrous escapade. Her return home is postponed for a day or two while she recovers:
I doze and have strange dreams: of the lost heifer panicking on the night strand, of bony, brown cows having no milk in their teats, of my mother climbing up and getting stuck in an apple tree. Then I wake and take the broth and whatever else I’m given (p.78).
She arrived at the Kinsellas on a Sunday and fittingly she returns home on a Sunday also. They retrace their journey from the coast to Gorey, through Carnew and Shillelagh to home. Immediately she notices the differences: she has grown, matured and changed – as in nature anything which has been neglected thrives with attention and loving care. Again we notice the sharp contrasts: the house ‘feels damp and cold’, her mother notices that she speaks differently. Her sisters look at her ‘as though I’m an English cousin’ while she notices that they ‘seem different, thinner and have nothing to say’ (p.81).
She sneezes then and her mother realises she has a cold. She has decided that she will not recount her misadventure at the well, that her parents don’t need to know, and she tells her mother ‘Nothing happened’ – she didn’t catch a cold. She knows, however, that her mother will not be satisfied with this explanation and as a mark of how much she has matured and grown she tells us:
This is my mother I am speaking to but I have learnt enough, grown enough, to know that what happened is not something I need ever mention (p.86).
Then, echoing the earlier conversation with John Kinsella on the beach she tells us:
It is my perfect opportunity to say nothing (p.86).
The uneasy moment passes and the Kinsellas prepare to leave for home. She races after them, thoughts flooding through her mind and she lists the things that will remain locked within her forever:
Several thoughts flash through my mind: the boy in the wallpaper, the gooseberries, that moment when the bucket pulled me under, the lost heifer, the mattress weeping, the third light…. (p.86).
The ending is dramatic, cinematic, and climactic. She races into Kinsellas embrace and feelings of sadness, of loss, of gratitude flood over her. She sees her father, Da, walking down the lane towards them and yet she holds on to Kinsella ‘as though I’ll drown if I let go’. She looks over at Aunt Edna ‘the woman that has minded me so well’ and silently promises that ‘I will never, ever tell’. Looking over Kinsella’s shoulder she calls out to her father, calling him by his new name:
‘Daddy,’ I keep calling him, keep warning him. ‘Daddy’ (p.88).
This is, in effect, the climax of the story. Our young narrator has benefitted from her experiences over the summer and she has been given the space to blossom – hence her name, Petal. However, she now finds herself in a dilemma: she would love to have Kinsella as her father because she knows her own father doesn’t really care for her or his family. She has come to admire and be fond of Kinsella and his wife. So, when she sees her father coming down the lane towards them, it’s very natural for her to say ‘Daddy’ but because she’s in Kinsella’s arms she’s actually saying it to him. So even though she’s warning Kinsella that her father is coming to get her, what she’s doing in that moment is she’s calling Kinsella ‘Daddy’ which is something she’s wanted to do and couldn’t do until this moment. She didn’t plan it, and the moment enabled her to say something that she wanted to say even though she didn’t intend it. She has never before called her father ‘Daddy’ during the course of the novella, so this is also putting him on alert that all is now changed, changed utterly. She has now experienced what it feels like to be truly valued and there can be no going back to the way things were before.
The Theme of Family
Foster introduces us to two very contrasting families. The young narrator of the story has been raised in a poor, rural family. She has numerous brothers and sisters and is effectively anonymous, without a name, when we first meet her. The reason she is being fostered is that her mother is expecting again and she will be looked after by her Aunt Edna and her husband John Kinsella until the new baby arrives.
The young girl’s father is a feckless alcoholic. He is shady, lazy and rude. Declan Kiberd in reviewing the novel describes him as ‘poor, improvident, coarse to the point of being abusive’. He is untrustworthy and he regularly lies as the story unfolds. We learn that his name is Dan but like his daughter, we never learn the family surname. We presume that his wife Mary is Aunt Edna’s sister. Early on we learn that he is a gambler and that he ‘lost our red Shorthorn in a game of forty-five’ (p.3). He also appears to be very sexist and old-fashioned as he waits for Aunt Edna to pick up the stalks of rhubarb he has let fall from his arms as he prepares to drive home after delivering his daughter to the Kinsellas for the summer months (p.14). The child continually refers to him as Da until the very final moments when she calls him Daddy.
Her mother, Mary, is harried and at her wits end. Her husband, Dan, is no help and she has to find money to pay people to plough the land and mow the hay and do the other jobs that her husband should be doing. The young narrator’s view of men has been coloured by her mother’s experience and she declares to Kinsella at one stage ‘Mammy says I shouldn’t take a present of a man’. He, however, reassures her and says ‘Still and all, there’s no two men the same’ (p.33).
In sharp juxtaposition, the Kinsella household is completely different. The young girl quickly realises that her new temporary home ‘is a different type of house. Here there is room and time to think and grow. There may even be money to spare’ (p.13). All comparisons are made for us from her own limited experience of home. The Kinsella household is a busy, busy place and is sharply juxtaposed with the narrator’s home place:
We pull rhubarb, make tarts, paint the skirting boards, take all the bedclothes out of the hot press and hoover out the spider webs, and put all the clean clothes back in again, make scones, polish the furniture, boil onions for onion sauce and put in containers in the freezer, pull the weeds out of the flower beds and then, when the sun goes down, water things (p.37-38).
Her new foster parents quickly turn all stereotypes on their ear. They are both model parents and Claire Keegan even manages to dispel some of the notions we have about wicked foster parents – this is particularly true of John Kinsella. She notices that he and his wife, Edna, work hard all day as a united team and she realises that they both want the best for her and that Aunt Edna, in particular, ‘wants me to get things right, to teach me’ (p.30).
At first Aunt Edna doesn’t give the child a name. We sense that she doesn’t want to become too attached to the new arrival. After all, she has suffered a great, tragic loss with the drowning of her young son. She is also keenly aware that this is a very temporary arrangement and that she will have to return this young girl to her parents at summer’s end. It is clear that both Kinsellas have dealt with the loss of their son and have coped with the loss in their own separate ways. She sets out to teach the young girl as much as she can about running a home and introduces her to a range of chores. She also eventually buys the young girl new clothes rather than have her wear her dead son’s clothes which haven’t been touched since his tragic death. Mrs Kinsella is quite realistic about the girl: she knew that she would go back to her family at summer’s end and this explains why Mrs Kinsella didn’t let herself get as fond of this child as her husband did.
John Kinsella emerges as the unsung hero of this novella – he is according to Declan Kiberd, ‘the sort of loving father the girl never had’. He grows in stature as the story develops. Despite the awful tragedy which has befallen the household both himself and his wife are coping as well as can be expected. There is a sharp juxtaposition between John Kinsella and Dan, the young girl’s father. He is hard working and his fields are well laid out. We can see again the young girl comparing her home place to this new well run farm:
Kinsella’s fields are broad and level, divided in strips with electric fences she says I must not touch unless I want a shock. When the winds blows, sections of the longer grass bend over turning silver. On one strip of land, tall Friesian cows stand all around us, grazing…. (p.21).
He is a good neighbour and people come for his help to dig a grave for a neighbour or help if a cow is having difficulty calving. He, in turn, is protected by the neighbours and they are sensitive to the couple’s loss of their only son and they admire their stoicism in dealing with their terrible tragedy.
He treats the young girl as if she was his own daughter and on a visit to Gorey he buys her books and then later helps her with her reading. When he delivers Petal back home he tells her he wants to see gold stars in her copybooks when he next comes to visit. During their night walk on the strand he gives her valuable fatherly advice:
‘You don’t ever have to say anything,’ he says. ‘Always remember that as a thing you need never do. Many’s the man lost much just because he missed a perfect opportunity to say nothing’ (p.64).
This is probably the most important sentence in the whole novel. Declan Kiberd says ‘it reverberates, forwards and backwards, through the tale’. It contradicts his wife’s earlier assertion that there can be no room for secrets since secrets imply shame. The events of the novel help us to realise the distinction: a secret is something one hides while the unspoken is something that doesn’t need to be told.
Another emotional moment for me was a scene at the beach where the girl was taken by her foster father. On the way back he is trying to retrace his steps but he can’t find his own footprints, only the girl’s. It is obvious that he finds support in the young girl’s company so he says:
“You must have carried me there” (p.66).
As the story develops we become more and more aware of John Kinsella’s good qualities: he is caring, loving, generous, affectionate and kind. He is, in effect, the epitome of what it means to foster a young damaged and neglected young girl.
The final emotional scene between Kinsella and the young girl is a very powerful and dramatic finale to the novel. She has come to admire and be fond of Kinsella and his wife. So, when she sees her father coming down the lane towards them, it’s very natural for her to say ‘Daddy’ but because she’s in Kinsella’s arms she’s actually saying it to him. So even though she’s warning Kinsella that her father is coming to get her, what she’s doing in that moment is she’s calling Kinsella ‘Daddy’ which is something she’s wanted to do and couldn’t do until this moment. She didn’t plan it, and the moment enabled her to say something that she wanted to say even though she didn’t intend it.
Meanwhile, Aunt Edna is sobbing uncontrollably in the car. The young girl looks over at Aunt Edna ‘the woman that has minded me so well’ and silently promises that ‘I will never, ever tell’. Aunt Edna is crying with sadness and with relief. After all, this young girl nearly drowned at the well and it is only now after she has left the young girl back with her parents that she fully realises the near tragedy that could have occurred. We often cry out of relief. For me, that is what she was suffering from or experiencing at that moment. Remember, she could have been driving up that lane to tell those people that their daughter had drowned. I think that she was living with that and also, of course, the incident had brought back the loss of her only son to drowning also.
The young narrator, Petal, has blossomed over the summer months with her temporary family, the Kinsellas. She actually came of age while under their care because she was minded. Nothing flourishes so much as that which is neglected, and is then minded. The one thing you can say about the ending is that is inevitable. Good stories always end inevitably: after they finish you feel there’s only one thing that could have happened, and that is the thing that happened. And I think it’s inevitable that the young girl would return home, and that the Kinsellas would go back to their home with no child.
It is a fitting ending to the novel and hopefully the beginning of a relationship which will develop in the coming years. She has learnt much in the Kinsellas home, including the gift of reading:
It was like learning to ride the bike; I felt myself taking off, the freedom of going places I couldn’t have gone before, and it was easy (p.74).
We hope she’ll find her way back to the Kinsellas again for many more idyllic sunny summers in the sunny South East!
The story is based on events which take place in Ireland during the Summer of 1981. The setting is rural County Wexford. There are very few cultural markers provided in the short novella and one could be excused for thinking that the events took place at an earlier time. The slow rhythms of life are based on rural and agricultural activity of what seems an earlier generation. The young girl, the narrator of the story, is fostered out to a home which has a freezer, ‘a hovering machine’, and other mod cons yet, incongruously, they have to go to the well down the fields to fetch water for the tea. There are also shopping visits to the local town and the child is taken to a local wake during the course of the novel.
The notion of fostering has a long history in Ireland. The old Gaelic chiefs used fostering to create alliances and maintain peace accords with local rival chieftains – they were less likely to attack a neighbouring chieftain if they realised that their young son or daughter was being raised there. In essence, the child was seen as a kind of hostage but as Declan Kiberd points out in his book After Ireland, ‘the more positive motive was the hope that the second family might educate the child more fully than might the first, in the ways of the world’. In more recent times parents of large families often fostered one or more of their children to relatives or grandparents to help rear them. Michael Hartnett, the poet, tells the story that he was fostered out to his grandmother, Bridget Halpin, in the mid nineteen forties because ‘times were hard in Lower Maiden Street’ in Newcastle West and food and sustenance were more plentiful in nearby rural Camas.
The story is set in the Summer of 1981, the summer when week after week the news broke of yet another death from hunger strike in Long Kesh prison in Northern Ireland. In all, ten IRA hunger strikers including Bobby Sands lost their lives during those turbulent times.
The novel was published in 2010 shortly after the publication of The Murphy Report and the Ryan Report. The Murphy Report was the brief name of the report of a Commission of investigation conducted by the Irish Government into the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin. The Report was released in 2009 by Judge Yvonne Murphy, only a few months after the publication of the report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (the Ryan Report) chaired by Seán Ryan, a similar inquiry which dealt with abuses in industrial schools controlled by Roman Catholic religious institutes.
Ironically, one of the earliest reports into clerical sex abuse claims was one conducted in the Diocese of Ferns which includes most of County Wexford. The Ferns Report was presented to the Irish government on 25 October 2005 and released the following day. It identified more than 100 allegations of child sexual abuse made between 1962 and 2002 against twenty-one priests operating under the aegis of the Diocese of Ferns.
The novel was published in 2010 and by that time also Ireland was experiencing one of the biggest recessions in modern times brought about by the collapse of its banking system after a decade of affluence and Celtic Tiger excess. The novel Foster tells the story of a character’s brief sojourn in a wealthy household and that character’s predicted return (wiser and more mature) to a more austere life. Maybe, as Declan Kiberd states, ‘Claire Keegan (in Foster) was writing the secret history of her country’.
Be that as it may, these historical incidents are barely mentioned in the novella. We are introduced to a quiet, secluded part of County Wexford during the summer of 1981. We witness the daily lives and dramas of an ordinary farming community as they go about their seasonal occupations. It is a rural backwater, a favourite setting for novelists, it is 1981 but it could be any year. The major changes affecting the outside world are barely noticed here in this idyllic setting.
This is a novel of social realism, which is written in the continuous present tense by a first-person omniscient narrative voice. It can, therefore, be classed as a social document that is set in Ireland in the turbulent period of the Northern Ireland troubles. These troubles even visited rural County Wexford on the 13th October 1980 when Garda Seamus Quaid (a native of Feoghanagh, County Limerick) was killed in the line of duty by the IRA.
It has also been described as a ‘long short story’ and Claire Keegan is one of the great modern writers who use the short story to great effect. She is very much influenced by the writing of Frank O’Connor. In effect, this is a short story with chapters added. The fast-moving story leads to a dramatic climax at the very end.
As well as Frank O’Connor she is also influenced greatly by another O’Connor, Mary Flannery O’Connor whose gothic short stories were read by her during her stay in New Orleans and her studies at Loyola University. During the course of the novel the young narrator is taught by Kinsella to read books: Heidi, What Katy did Next, The Snow Queen. She tells us that reading is like riding a bike; it allows her to go to new places and to make up endings different from those in the books. This notion is also very similar to Seamus Deane’s young narrator in Reading in the Dark. She also makes the analogy that learning to read is like learning to read her new family.
All past events are narrated by the girl in a continuous present tense. This suggests that whatever unrevealed trauma was experienced in the past is still being dealt with in the present. Early on in the novel, we are aware that the young narrator feels ‘caught’ between two different families. She wants her father to leave because ‘this is a new place and new words are needed’ (p.18).
The short story or novella has all the classic elements of a Bildungsroman novel. This genre of novel is best described as a novel of maturation. In its classic form, it entails a young, uneducated person being forced to face the harsh realities of life before they would normally be expected to do so. Here the young narrator is taken from her home and ‘fostered out’ to Aunt Edna Kinsella and her husband John for the duration of the school summer holidays in 1981.
The title of the novella, Foster, causes some problems for me. Normally the title may give some clue as to the content, what the potential reader can expect to find, but not here. For me, the title and the photograph used on the front jacket bore little relation to what had been revealed inside. Fostered or The Fostered Girl or Foster Child might have been better options – to me, Foster suggests a person’s name and the title is, therefore, somewhat misleading.
The story contains many gothic elements and there is also an ominous undercurrent created because of what is unsaid and also because of what is not fully understood by the child narrator. This is akin to Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. We are left with the feeling that there may be other secrets that the young girl has decided not to reveal along with the incident at the well.
GENERAL VISION AND VIEWPOINT
This is a realistic novel, which explores the dynamics of two Irish rural families over the course of the school summer holidays in 1981. The narrator is a young girl and we are privy to her observations and account of her childhood – or two months from that eventful childhood. Like Heaney in his poem, ‘The Harvest Bow’, we are often left ‘gleaning the unsaid off the palpable’ i.e. often what’s unsaid is as important as the spoken word.
We are introduced to a world where people are trying their best to cope with the difficulties that life has thrown at them. One family is trying to cope with poverty and neglect, largely as a result of a feckless, alcoholic father while the other family is trying to come to terms with the loss of their only son to drowning in a tragic farm accident. This is filtered to us through the lens of a very young, neglected girl who tries to make sense of it all. Despite this bleak subject matter the backdrop to the story is rural County Wexford which, unusually for Ireland, is bathed in continuous summer sunshine.
Foster is a story of love and loss, of how familial grief can be transformed into tenderness, of how hope endures and, with it, kindness. It is, at times, almost unbearably poignant in its evocation of childhood innocence and adult stoicism. The locals have noticed the way the Kinsellas have dealt with their family tragedy and admire the way they have accepted disaster and tried their best to cope with it. The night of the card playing when two men came selling lines the proceeds of which, they said, would go towards putting a new roof on the school is a good example of the neighbours being sensitive. However, Kinsella will have none of it:
‘Of course,’ Kinsella said.
‘We didn’t really think – ‘
‘Come on in,’ Kinsella said. ‘Just ‘cos I’ve none of my own doesn’t mean I’d see the rain falling in on anyone else’s’ (p.39).
The ending is dramatic and allows for many interpretations as to what happens next. It is not the traditional happy ending – this ending is neither happy nor sad. Overall, the novel provokes a myriad of mixed emotions and truly upsetting feelings in the reader. There is sympathy felt throughout for the young narrator. As readers, we are not satisfied with how the novel ends but perhaps this realistic ending was the author’s way of showing us that life does not always have a happy ending. However, we also sense that something has happened in those final dramatic moments. There is slight hope that things will change for the young girl. This is dependent, of course, on others changing also, especially her father’s behaviour.
The one thing you can say about the ending is that is inevitable. Good stories always end inevitably: after they finish you feel there’s only one thing that could have happened, and that is the thing that happened. And I think it’s inevitable that the young girl would return to her own home, and that the Kinsellas would go back to their home empty-handed. Declan Kiberd sums it up succinctly when he says:
.. the tale is told about people who are shy of exposing themselves to the passing moment and shyer still to narrate themselves. Their stories are mysterious enough to resist a further telling or an absolute silence.
Keegan, Claire. Foster. London: Faber and Faber, 2010.
Kiberd, Declan. Chapter 27 Claire Keegan: Foster in After Ireland: Writing the nation from Beckett to the present. London: Head of Zeus Ltd, 2017.
(For those of you who would like to revisit the novel in your own time all page references are from the Faber and Faber paperback edition.)
That They May Face the Rising Sun was published in 2001 (published in the United States as By the Lake) and is a portrait of a year in the life of a rural lakeside community. It mirrors McGahern’s own return to his rural roots and is his paean to place. I recently tucked this gem away in the hand luggage to reacquaint myself with the master’s work. Don, my son, mentioned when he saw me reading it again that he would challenge me to date it – in other words, when exactly is it set?
The structure of the novel is unique and yet deceptive. There are no Chapters or other recognised breaks in the novel – the story slowly evolves and is told in a circular, repetitive manner, a kind of stream of consciousness novel, beautifully crafted and told by a master storyteller. McGahern throws some light on this layering and repetition in an interview given to James Whyte, ‘I see the whole function of writing as circling on the image […] To try to pick the image that’s sharp, that can dramatise or bring to light what is happening, be it a wedding ring, a Coca-cola bottle, or someone rolling an orange across the floor.’ 
The setting is one McGahern knows completely. It’s his own place, a remote and sparsely populated corner of Fenagh, County Leitrim, between Carrick-on-Shannon and the border near Enniskillen. There are a few houses by a lake, a bog stretching away to the distant Iron Mountains, a small town with two bars and a roofless abbey with the remains of a monks’ graveyard called Shruhaun. This setting is described meticulously and repeatedly, just as it appears in stories like ‘High Ground’ or ‘The Country Funeral’. The novel is dedicated to Madeline Green, his wife and support in those final productive years by the lake.
In response to Don’s challenge, the novel is hard to tie down time-wise – there are hints dropped here and there and we get outside references to ‘Fords of Dagenham’, ‘the death of de Valera’ (1975), ‘the escape from Long Kesh’ (1975), ‘the hunger strikes’ (1980’s), ‘the ring road round Roscommon’ (1980’s), ‘Blind Date’ and All Ireland Finals on the television and ‘the massacre at Enniskillen’ (1987), etc. However, McGahern is continually moving from the present to the past and much of the farming practices described are throw-backs to the Seventies, and Eighties – haymaking, single bar mowers, square bales, and the use of the buck rake are all redolent of this era. However, they are characteristic of ‘small’ farming practices on small holdings in poorer regions to this day. This muddies the waters when trying to accurately date the text. As a fictional work accounting for the final years of the author’s life and his return to his native place, my guess is that it took a number of years to write. Therefore, my best guess is that it was written over time but no later than 1990.
However, it is not of vital importance that we accurately pinpoint the time of writing – it is a beautifully layered piece – it is akin to O’Faolain’s ‘A Nest of Gentle Folk’ – describing the locals, their relationships, their hardships, their foibles and peculiarities. The lake itself is even reminiscent of Chekov’s ‘magic lake’ in The Seagull. This is mixed in with often poetic seasonal observations from the surrounding nature – the hills, the fields, the swans, the herons, the dogs and cats, the sheep and cattle of the small townland – and of course the lake which takes on the mantle of an ever-present vital character in the novel:
‘The banks were in the full glory of the summer, covered with foxgloves and small wild strawberries and green vetches. The air was scented with wild woodbine’ (p.15).
‘Around him was the sharp scent of the burnished mint. Close by, two swans fished in the shallows, three dark cygnets by their side. Further out, a whole stretch of water was alive and rippling with a moving shoal of perch. Elsewhere, except where it was ruffled by sudden summer gusts, the water was like glass’ (p.15).
In this place all news is local. The daily visits to each other’s houses bring the usual banter:
‘Have you any news?’
‘No news. Came looking for news.’
‘You came to the wrong place. We are waiting for news’ (p. 126-127).
The outside world does not intrude to any great extent – McGahern is reinforcing the notion that all politics is local, that community is everything. He is painting a picture of a disappearing world, of a close-knit rural community, cut off from the great earth-shattering events we see described on Sky and CNN – here all that matters is news of John Quinn’s latest conquest or other trivial local happenings which have been reported in the local Observer. The one significant ‘international’ story is the continuing ‘Troubles’ North of the border. What, I wonder, would the locals in this small backwater Border area make of Brexit when it comes to the shores of the lake?
A year’s cycle frames the lives on the lake: haymaking, market day, lambing. We move at one level from Bill Evans’ daily visits to the Ruttledges and his trips to town on Thursdays to the Shah’s arrival round the lake on Sunday’s. We then move to celebrations of Christmas, Monaghan Day in February, Easter and the arrival of Johnny Murphy on his annual visit home from England. Food, drink, seasons, weather, the grey heron, the black cat, are re-created continually, different each time, with intense, eloquent simplicity, as if a painter (or a poet) were returning over and over to the same scene:
The surface of the water out from the reeds was alive with shoals of small fish. There were many swans on the lake. A grey rowboat was fishing along the far shore. A pair of herons moved sluggishly through the air between the trees of the island and Gloria Bog. A light breeze was passing over the sea of pale sedge like a hand. The blue of the mountain was deeper and darker than the blue of the lake or the sky. Along the high banks at the edge of the water there were many little private lawns speckled with fish bones and blue crayfish shells where the otters fed and trained their young (p.44).
As we read, we encounter the ones who stayed, the ones who left and return once a year and the blow-ins who come to live in this magical backwater of a place. The story is told in cycles of time, the seasons melding into each other, Christmas and Easter given their rightful place. Even the title echoes the Resurrection at Easter-time and helps explain why every Christian graveyard faces the rising sun! The novel may not have Chapters in the accepted sense but as we read we are lulled by the benign, repetitive rhythms and cadences of rural life: On Sundays the Shah’s black Mercedes rolls round the lake, on Thursdays Billy Evans goes to the local town in the yellow minibus, each summer Johnny comes from London on his holidays and each evening the heron rises out of the reeds and flaps ahead leading Jamesie round the shore.
Joe Ruttledge and his wife Kate ‘came from London in the spring’ having abandoned the mayhem of London’s high life and glamour and purchased a small cottage by the lake. The auctioneer, Jimmy Joe McKiernan is brutally honest about their prospective purchase telling them that it is little more than a site, ‘a site above a lake, on twenty acres’:
The small fields around the house were enclosed with thick whitethorn hedges, with ash and rowan and green oak and sycamore, the fields overgrown with rushes. Then the screens of whitethorn suddenly gave way and they stood high over another lake. The wooded island where the herons bred was far out, and on the other shore, the pale sedge and stunted birch trees of Gloria Bog ran towards the shrouded mountains….. Swans and dark clusters of wildfowl were fishing calmly in the shelter (p.19).
They learn quickly the native ways and discover a place where they belong – all temptations to return to the centre are gently refused. Through them, we are introduced to the motley crew of neighbours, the mad, the bad and the sad. Their foibles, their character and flaws are keenly observed – mainly through Joe’s eyes. Their neighbour, Patrick Ryan remarks:
‘Strange to think of all the people that went out to England and America and the ends of the earth from this place and yon pair coming back against the tide’ (p.80)
They are blessed with their neighbours – particularly Mary and Jamesie Murphy. From the very beginning, Jamesie and Mary befriend the new arrivals, Joe and Kate, and made them welcome. Mary is a very deep reflective character, the real strength in the Murphy household. She had grown up at the edge of the lake and when she married Jamesie she left her father and brother and moved to her new home at the far side of the lake. Her home place is described as being idyllic:
Cherry and apple and pear trees grew wild about the house, and here and there the fresh green of the gooseberry shone out of a wilderness of crawling blackthorn. Hundreds of daffodils and white narcissi still greeted each spring by the lake with beauty, though there was no one near at hand to notice’ (p.92).
When she marries she is torn between her new home and having to leave her father and brother to fend for themselves. She begins to understand that ‘to be without anxiety was to be without love’ (p.94). Kate Ruttledge recognizes her worth as a friend and compliments her by saying that the spirit of her old home came with her across the lake. Mary and Jamesie live out their life by the lake: her father passes away, her brother emigrates to Boston, she becomes pregnant and Jim is born. He does well in school, winning a scholarship to continue schooling in the local town. He marries and has children of his own. He visits infrequently and holidays in Italy. Mary’s silent reaction is characteristic of her deep and reflective nature:
Completely alone though a part of the crowd, Mary stood mutely gazing on her son and his wife as if in wonderment how so much time had disappeared and emerged again in such strange and substantial forms that were and were not her own. Across her face there seemed to pass many feelings and reflections: it was as if she ached to touch and gather in and make whole those scattered years of change. But how can time be gathered in and kissed? There is only flesh (p.131-132).
Thinking of her brother-in-law, Johnny, who has returned to his bedsit in London she falls into reverie and shares a philosophy which is probably also shared by McGahern himself:
‘People we know come and go in our minds whether they are here or in England or alive or dead,’ Mary said with a darkness that was as much a part of her as the sweet inward-looking smile, ‘We’re no more than a puff of wind out on the lake’ (p. 121).
Jamesie, an inveterate gossip is, however, a great neighbour and, especially in those early days, the difference between Joe and Kate surviving in their new location. Early on he tells Joe, ‘I’ve never, never moved from here and I know the whole world’. As the novel ends, a very emotional Joe acknowledges the debt he owes to Jamesie when he says:
‘You do know the whole world,’ Ruttledge said. ‘And you have been my sweet guide.’ (p. 312).
However, Jamesie and Mary, and Joe and Kate are the exceptions in this novel as the novel is peopled mainly by single men, men who see being single as a state to be coveted and prized: The Shah, Johnny Murphy, Patrick Ryan, Bill Evans, are all single. The only exception to this general rule is John Quinn whose biblical mantra is ‘that it is not good that man should be alone’. Quinn’s numerous efforts at fulfilling this ‘commandment’ are described, sometimes with humour, but his abuse of women is seen as abhorrent and crude. The others are perfectly happy in their bachelorhood and this is one of the social ills that McGahern holds up to inspection in the novel. Joe wonders why Patrick Ryan had never considered marriage:
This good-looking, vigorous man had lived all his life around the lake where nothing could be concealed, and he had never shown any sexual interest in another. ‘I don’t have to even countenance that job,’ he joked once to Ruttledge. ‘John Quinn has agreed to do my share’ (p. 213).
Father Conroy, the Catholic Parish priest is their role model – he lives a comfortable bachelor life, is respected and is seen as a pillar of the community but his power and influence, and the influence of the Church he represents is waning. He is depicted as a peripheral, marginalized figure. No-one has a bad word to say about him. In his defence, he does use his influence in getting Bill Evans reinstated on the Thursday bus to town and he eventually finds a place for Bill in the new independent living accommodation in town – called ironically, Tráthnóna. However, the locals have made their assessment of priests in general and what they represent:
‘Anyhow all the priests in England are sociable. They are not directly connected to God like the crowd here.’
‘Father Conroy isn’t like that,’ Ruttledge intervened.
‘Father Conroy is plain. The priests had this country abulling with religion once. It’s a good job it’s easing off,’ Patrick Ryan said (p.86).
Joe Ruttledge sees Father Conroy as a decent man who tries his best not to offend and to blend in as best he can. Joe realizes that the priest is fighting a losing battle with diminishing levels of religious practice in the community. That They May Face the Rising Sun is one of the last great expositions of a Catholic community moving on into a ‘Post-Catholic’ world and is another non-bitter example of Ireland’s troubled and complex relationship with the Catholic religion.
The novel is suffused with words of easy wisdom – distilled, incisive one-liners that come from a life keenly observed in the solitude and mindfulness of rural existence (and often delivered as banter):
‘He that is down can fear no fall’ (p. 2)
‘The way we perceive ourselves and how we are perceived are often very different’ (p.3)
‘Thought pissed in the bed and thought he was sweating. His wife thought otherwise’ (p.3)
‘You nearly have to be born into a place to know what’s going on and what to do’ (p.3)
‘Those that care least will win’ (p.6)
Jamesie’s wisdom: ‘Enter lightly … and leave on tiptoe. Put the hand across but never press. Ask why not but never why. Always lie so that you speak the truth and God save all poor sinners’ (p.8)
‘They say we think the birds are singing when they are only crying this is mine out of their separate territories’ (p.21)
‘The borrowed horse has hard hooves’ (p.26)
‘Let nobody try to best the guards or the doctors or teachers. They have their own ways of getting back at you. (p.34)
‘There’s too much fucken drink passed around in this country’ (p.46)
‘There’s nothing right or wrong in this world. Only what happens’ (p.58)
‘There are times when the truth is the wrong thing’ (p.98)
‘Lies can walk while the truth stays grounded’ (p.98)
‘There’s a big difference between visiting and belonging’ (p.99)
‘There’s nothing worse than widows. Even priests will tell you that’ (p.105)
‘With people living longer there’s a whole new class who are neither in the world or in the graveyard’ (p.155)
‘The greatest country in Ireland was always the world to come’ (p.210)
Finally, my favourite! It is Christmas Day and Joe Ruttledge is visiting his neighbour Patrick Ryan. Patrick has a few cattle but they are not well taken care of. He passes a very pessimistic comment to Joe that ‘I suppose no more than ourselves, lad, it doesn’t make all that much differ whether they live or die’. Joe disagrees but doesn’t express his thoughts out loud – we, the readers, are the lucky ones with this beautiful, unspoken Christmas epiphany: ‘What do we have without life? What does love become but care? Ruttledge thought in opposition but did not speak’ (p.216).
One of the major episodes in the novel is the annual summer ritual of haymaking. This was often a very hectic, stressful and frenetic time for farmers who, in Ireland at any rate, are open to the vagaries of the Irish weather. This is beautifully rendered by McGahern in the novel and the various mundane tasks of saving the hay crop are punctuated with many poetic descriptions of high summer by the lake:
Then the settled weather came, the morning breeze from the lake lifting and tossing the curtains on the open windows to scatter early light around the bedroom walls (p.108).
Outside there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The ripe heavy grass in the meadow was stirring like water beneath the light breeze (p.110).
The morning wind from the lake that lifted the curtains had died. The water was like glass, reflecting the clear sky on either side of a sparkling river of light from a climbing sun. Not a breath of wind moved on the meadows. The only movement was the tossing of the butterflies above the restful grass (p.110).
When all the meadows were cut they looked wonderfully empty and clean, the big oak and ash trees in the hedges towering over the rows of cut grass, with the crows and the gulls descending in a shrieking rabble to hunt frogs and snails and worms. In the corners of the meadows, pairs of plump pigeons were pecking busily at grass seed’ (p.111).
Along the shore a boy was fishing out on the stones, casting a glittering spoon out over the water and then reeling it slowly in. The heron rose out of the reeds and flapped ahead before swinging away towards the farther shore. A glaring red sun was sinking below the rim of the sky (p.117).
The next morning a white mist obscured even the big trees along the shore. Gossamer hung over the pear and plum and apple trees in the orchard and a pale spiderwebbing lay across the grass in the field (p.117).
The very quiet and coolness of the morning was delicious with every hour promising later heat. When the sun had burned away the mist and dried the dew on the swards, the tedding began (p.118).
As the stacks (of hay) disappeared from the meadows and the shed filled, the sun coming and going behind the dark, racing clouds, they were able to stack the last loads at their ease, chatting and idling. The birds had gone quiet. The hum of the insects was still. Swallows were sweeping low above the empty meadows. The wind beats of swans crossing between the lakes came on the still air and they counted seven in formation before they disappeared below the screen of trees (p. 134-135).
Weather by the lake is also described in detail and is used as a device to show the passage of time. Without exception, these link passages are again powerfully poetic and show McGahern’s exceptional powers of observation:
Autumn: ‘There were many days of wind and rain. Uneasy gusts ruffled the surface of the lake, sending it running this way and that. Occasionally, a rainbow arched all the way across the lake. More often the rainbows were as broken as the weather, appearing here and there in streaks or brilliant patches of colour in the unsettled sky. When rain wasn’t dripping from leaves or eaves, the air was so heavy it was like breathing rain. The hives were quiet. Only the midges swarmed’ (p. 154).
‘The lake was an enormous mirror turned to the depth of the sky, holding its lights and its colours. Close to the reeds there were many flies, and small shoals of perch were rippling the surface with hints of the teeming energy and life of the depths. The reeds had lost their bright greenness and were leaning towards the water. Everything that had flowered had now come to fruit’ (p. 186).
‘The little vetch pods on the banks turned black. Along the shore a blue bloom came on the sloes. The blackberries moulded and went unpicked, the briar leaves changed into browns and reds and yellows in the low hedges, against which the pheasant could walk unnoticed. Plums and apples and pears were picked and stored or given around to neighbours or made into preserves in the big brass pot. Honey was taken from the hives, the bees fed melted sugar. For a few brilliant days the rowan berries were a shining red-orange in the light from the water, and then each tree became a noisy infestation of small birds as it trembled with greedy clamouring life until it was stripped clean’ (p.191).
Winter: ‘The leaves started to fall heavily in frosts, in ghostly whispering streams that never paused though the trees were still. They formed into drifts along the shore….. Traceries of branches stripped of their leaves stood out against the water like veins. Under each delicate rowan tree lay the pale rowan stones, like droppings. In the cold dry weather the hedges were thinned for firewood, the evenings rent with the whining rise and fall of other chainsaws similarly working. In this new weather, sounds travelled with a new cold sharpness’ (p. 192).
‘A river of beaten copper ran sparkling from shore to shore in the centre of the lake. On either side of this bright river peppered with pale stars the dark water seethed. Far away the light of the town glowed in the sky’ (p. 201).
Spring: ‘The fields long sodden with rain hardened in the drying winds. Small flowers started to appear on banks and ditches and in the shelter of the hedges….. Birds bearing twigs in their beaks looped through the air. The brooding swan resumed her seat on the high throne in the middle of the reeds. The otter paths between the lakes grew more beaten. In shallows along the shore the water rippled with the life of spawning pike and bream: in the turmoil their dark fins showed above the water and the white of their bellies flashed when they rolled. The lambs were now out with their mothers on the grass, hopping as if they had mechanical springs in their tiny hooves, sometimes leapfrogging one another’ (p.250).
‘There were primroses and violets on the banks of the lane and the dark leaf of the wild strawberry, dandelion in flower and little vetches. It was too early to scent the wild mint but they could see its rough leaves crawling along the edges of the gravel’ (p. 258).
Summer: ‘The plum trees blossomed, then the apple came and the white brilliance of the pear tree. May came in wet and windy. The rich green of the grass in the shelter of the hedges travelled out over the whole fields. Weeds had to be pulled from the ridges, the vegetable garden turned and weeded. Foxgloves appeared on the banks of the lane and the scent of the wild mint was stronger along the shore’ (p. 263).
‘The water was silent, except for the chattering of the wildfowl, the night air sweet with the scents of the ripening meadows, thyme and clover and meadowsweet, wild woodbine high in the whitethorns mixed with the scent of the wild mint crawling along the gravel on the edge of the water’ (p. 312-313).
As the novel moves to its climax McGahern revisits the annual commemoration of the massacre at Glasdrum. This is embedded in the local folk memory and commemorates an ambush carried out by the Black and Tans during the turbulent War of Independence. The local volunteers had no chance and were mown down in the ambush and their bodies are buried in the graveyard in Shruhaun. Following the massacre, the locals carried out a reprisal killing and the local Protestant, Sinclair, is taken away from his family and shot. Each year the deaths of the IRA volunteers are commemorated by a march and speeches are made at their gravesides. This is orchestrated by the Jimmy Joe McKiernan and is used as a reminder of the brutality and oppression suffered in the past.
The whole area on either side of the Border again suffered greatly during the ‘Troubles’ which divided the people in Northern Ireland during the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties. Communities on both sides of the Border were convulsed with acts of brutality and violence. This conflict is close and ever-present; it colours the whole history of the region. Jimmy Joe McKiernan who is also the local auctioneer, publican and undertaker has his finger in many pies.
In the middle of the crowd, Jimmy Joe McKiernan walked quietly, the head of the Provisionals, North and South, with power over all who marched (p.258).
McKiernan’s every move is monitored by a very Irish form of surveillance: two ‘undercover’ detectives sit in their ‘unmarked’ police car in a laneway across from his bar in the village and record his every move. McGahern’s cipher and benign alter ego, Joe Ruttledge, speaks out fiercely against the violence towards the end of the book – ‘They honoured themselves at Enniskillen. How many people did they kill and maim?’ (p.238). We are left in no doubt where the author stands on this important issue – an issue that is raised on the opening page when Joe Ruttledge tells us:
‘We never speak badly about people. It’s too dangerous. It can get you into trouble’ (p. 1).
Throughout the novel, in endless, repetitive descriptions of people and places, McGahern is reminding us all of how people lived in the past and how we should live our lives today before it is too late. There is an old Irish sean fhocail or proverb which states ‘Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na ndaoine’ – we rely on our neighbours for our survival. The pastoral and Edenlike world created by McGahern here in this, his swansong novel, gives us a notion of how this can be achieved; neighbourliness, hospitality, ritual, friendly banter. In capturing this passing way of life he celebrates its rites and rituals with such dignity that the novel has many of the hallmarks of religious worship. But more important than the living world he celebrates is the natural world which surrounds it – the sun, the sky and the lake – which provides order and an everlasting backdrop to the lives of its inhabitants. The time frame of the novel may be blurred and timeless but the constantly evolving and changing descriptions of the lake are a constant reminder of our strictly human scope within the wider canvas of the natural world. As Mary Murphy reminds us we are merely passing through – “We’re but a puff of wind on the lake.” Joe Ruttledge puts it beautifully in his already mentioned Christmas epiphany: ‘What do we have without life? What does love become but care?’
 Interview, quoted in James Whyte, History, Myth and Ritual in the Fiction of John McGahern, NY: Edwin Mellon Press 2002, p.229.
Kazuo Ishiguro’s recent elevation as Nobel Laureate will surely prompt avid readers to explore his repertoire further. They could do worse than lose themselves in this offering from 2015. The novel took me back to my undergraduate days in UCC in the 1970’s studying classics like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Beowulf. Ishiguro’s tale sets out to be a classic Arthurian fable depicting Sir Gawain himself, and others on various quests. Ishiguro exploits the avalanche of recent interest in this genre as seen in Peter Jackson’s cinematic telling of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings saga. While the novel may not lend itself to a film blockbuster, it does have all the attributes for one of those all-consuming RPG’s (an acronym I’ve just newly acquired!) in which you work your way through various adventures and levels and perils on your journey to eventually achieving your Holy Grail.
The novel is set at a certain indistinct time after the death of the legendary Arthur. Britons and Saxons enjoy a fragile peace: the first tentative steps being taken to assimilate both opposing forces in villages and communities throughout the realm. However, we soon learn that this peace is maintained only because each community is afflicted by a collective loss of memory surrounding their horrendous war-torn past. The she-dragon Querig is said to be responsible for this collective amnesia by the spreading of a mysterious mist which envelops the countryside and the hamlets. Indeed, the novel explores the rather vexed issue of memory, and race memory in particular, in maintaining peace in a fractured – and fractious – post-war political landscape. This idea, of memory and its loss, is dealt with by Ishiguro on two fronts – the geopolitical and the personal.
The novel has a number of narrators, principally Axl and Beatrice – but others including Sir Gawain, Sir Wistan and the various boatmen also provide necessary insights, observations and reveries as the story unfolds. The early chapters introduce us to Axl and Beatrice, his princess. They are Britons who live in an underground, warren-like community, surrounded by monsters and ogres and never-ending mists blowing in from the mountains and fens. They live ‘on the edge of a vast bog’, where ‘the past was rarely discussed’ because ‘it had faded into a mist as dense as that which hung over the marshes’. However, they are being increasingly marginalised by their elders in the Great Chamber and eventually decide to leave to seek out their son who has left for some forgotten reason. Thus begins the great adventure.
Early in their journey, they come upon a mysterious boatman. Their conversation with him lays the foundation for their fears that restored memory will bring disaster and a possible end to their solid, loving relationship.
We meet Sir Gawain who has been given a quest by Arthur to slay the she-dragon Querig. He has spent his life wandering the hills getting to know her ways and her guile, so much so, that he eventually becomes her protector. He is mocked by the women for his inactivity in fulfilling his quest, and we find him wandering the foothills on his trusted warhorse Horace, a rather pathetic figure of ridicule – a forlorn relic of a chivalrous past.
We also encounter the warrior, Wistan, and his young protégé Edwin, who it is feared has been affected by a dragon bite. We learn that Wistan has been sent by his Saxon king in the eastern fens, to seek out Querig and slay her. The motivation behind this seems to be that once Querig has been slain and the people’s memory fully restored, the long-suppressed divisions and hatreds will resurface to aid the king in his quest to gain Saxon control over the kingdom.
Axl and Beatrice continue their journey, accompanied by Sir Gawain and the young boy Edwin. They detour to visit the wise Father Jonus who lives in a monastery in the mountains, on the pretext of receiving a cure for Beatrice’s mysterious ailment. The monastery, once a Saxon citadel, holds further dangers for the party as they are forced to escape through secret passages to freedom. They continue relentlessly upward to the Giant’s Cairn, where Querig reputedly has her lair. Once Sir Gawain and Querig have been slain by Sir Wistan, Beatrice and Axl are made aware of the tragic consequences which will follow: memory will soon be fully restored and the dogs of war loosed again, with devastating consequences. Once again Britons will be set upon by their Saxon neighbours, ushering in another period of war and unrest, the fragile peace put in place by King Arthur shattered forever.
Axl and Beatrice make their way from the dragon’s former lair and again meet another boatman. Beatrice reveals – her memory now restored – that in fact, their son is dead and is buried on a nearby offshore island. They undergo the dreaded solitary test administered by the boatman and the novel ends in sadness, as Axl is left on the shore, while the boatman ferries the ever-weakening Beatrice to the mysterious island.
In this novel Ishiguro provides us with a thinly veiled modern allegory – his thesis seems to be that a collective loss of memory is necessary in the various trouble spots around the world where untold savagery and genocide have been unleashed if reconciliation is to take place. We can only imagine the difficulties that daily face communities which were once suffused with hatred and division. The situation in Northern Ireland obviously springs to mind. We see regularly on our televisions and newspapers the efforts made to normalise peace in these communities after almost a quarter of a century of atrocity, a process which requires a near Orwellian stretching of credibility on our behalf. In fact, we may wonder has Ishiguro’s mist been replaced there with the modern version – sterling, euro and dollar? We may also remember other recent trouble-spots such as Israel/Palestine, South Africa, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Syria and question: how can normality be restored, how can society pick up the pieces again? Can Humpty Dumpty ever be put back together again?
As well as the geopolitical implications Ishiguro applies the same thesis to the more private area of marital love. The touching tenderness and faithfulness exhibited by Axl and Beatrice belie the difficulties they have had to face in their long lives together. This has included a period of infidelity by Axl which has been glossed over, and also, the death of their only son. Surely, this mysterious yet fortuitous amnesia has been a Godsend to them in maintaining their closeness and their touching intimacy. Surely their relationship would not have otherwise endured but for the benign balm of amnesia.
Consider then the gargantuan achievement of Ishiguro in The Buried Giant: it is a masterpiece about characters who all suffer from various degrees of memory loss, and yet we as readers are able to piece the story together, to read between the lines…. It is, however, an allegory in wishful thinking. In reality, there are no quick fixes to help us cope with our post-traumatic stresses. We cannot rely on the temporary balm of forgetfulness. If anything, in our world we are left to deal with generation after generation of bequeathed toxic memory. Atrocity on the world stage or infidelity on a personal relationship level are not so easily forgotten, nor forgiven.
Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.
There were dragonflies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring
I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied
Specks to range on window sills at home,
On shelves at school, and wait and watch until
The fattening dots burst, into nimble
Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how
The daddy frog was called a bullfrog
And how he croaked and how the mammy frog
Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was
Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too
For they were yellow in the sun and brown
Then one hot day when fields were rank
With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs
Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges
To a coarse croaking that I had not heard
Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.
Right down the dam gross bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:
The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.
In the title poem of his first ever collection, Death of a Naturalist, Seamus Heaney gives a very sensuous and sumptuous description of the goings on at his local flax-hole. This hole or ‘flax-dam’ contained the flax which had been harvested and was now being soaked in a man-made hole in the corner of the flax-field in August. When the process was complete the flax was taken out and became the raw material for the thriving linen industry which had long flourished in Northern Ireland but was now showing some signs of decay in the nineteen fifties. The poem has an added resonance for me because I live in a beautiful part of West Limerick and next door to me is the townland of Ahalin, or Achadh Lín in Irish, which means the ‘field of the flax’. Each time I read this poem I am reminded that at some time maybe in the 1800’s or before just over the road from me was our very own flax-field with its festering flax-dam!
In this poem, ‘Death of a Naturalist’, Seamus Heaney gives a brilliant description of the local flax-hole. It is a memory poem, one of the many poems written about his childhood and early school days. Heaney, in this first collection of early poems mines a rich vein of childhood memory. It is, however, embellished memory – childhood through a rosy adult lens. The poem is extremely sensual and evokes the senses of sight and sound and smell to perfection. Indeed, the poem invites the reader to read it aloud such are the myriad examples of assonance and alliteration scattered throughout.
The flax-dam or flax hole came into its own each August when the flax crop was ready for harvest. Flax pulling by hand was a backbreaking job, taken on by casual, often transient workers. Hand pulling was necessary because the whole stem, from root to tip, was required to give the longest fibre, for the finest quality linen cloth. The pulled flax was tied up in beats (sheaves) and put in rows or stooks on the flax field. The stooks were collected and put into flax holes, or dams, and kept under water for ten to fourteen days. This was to `rat’ or `rot’ the inside wood part from the outside fibres.
The ‘flax-dam’ festered and ‘sweltered in the punishing sun’ in high Summer. We can almost hear the bluebottles as they,
‘Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell’.
Each August the flax was immersed in the flax hole and sods of earth were used to keep it submerged.
The flax hole may have only been used by the farmers during the harvest but of course, it lay there unused all year round. The young poet, as naturalist, is obviously drawn to the pool at other times of the year as well, especially when there were great clots of frogspawn evident each Spring. He also visits in May to see the dragonflies and every July and August to spot the butterflies:
There were dragonflies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks.
The poet uses onomatopoeia to great effect to aid his description: ‘bubbles gargled’, ‘slobber of frogspawn’, ‘coarse croaking’, ‘the slap and plop’, and the brilliant ‘blunt heads farting’. We are also reminded of his age with the use of the word ‘jampotfuls’ and by the childish simile ‘Poised like mud grenades’.
Like all other budding young naturalists, he is lucky to have a great teacher! ‘Miss Walls’ encourages him and provides him with the necessary information, always appropriate to his age of course!
Miss Walls would tell us how
The daddy frog was called a bullfrog
And how he croaked and how the mammy frog
Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was
Her ecology classes sent him out to the meadows to collect samples for the classroom and for the windowsill at home in his kitchen in Mossbawn. Miss Walls also imparted other vital pieces of information which are seized upon by the young eager naturalist:
You could tell the weather by frogs too
For they were yellow in the sun and brown
There is a sense of childhood foreboding and fear of the flax hole and the mating frogs which is recreated with great accuracy by the poet – he knew, or he had been told by his elders, that ‘if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it’. These stories were obviously very effective in keeping inquisitive young boys away from the vicinity of these dangerous flax dams and he feels threatened and frightened by the scene that confronts him at the flax-dam.
The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.
Indeed, the whole poem can be seen as a metaphor for growing up, laden with imagery which could be interpreted as sexual: we sense a child’s revulsion as he discovers the facts of life and his ensuing loss of innocence. He will never feel the same again about the countryside after this encounter with the bullfrogs! As the poem’s title suggests,therefore, his days as a naturalist are drawing to an end!
The division of Ireland into counties took place shortly after the Anglo-Norman Invasion, led by King Henry II in 1171. In 1211 King John (1199-1216) divided the whole of the country that acknowledged his government into twelve counties in Leinster and Munster. Very little regard seems to have been paid at this time to the ancient division of Ireland into five Provinces.
In Leinster, he created Dublin, Meath, Uriell (now called Louth), Kildare, Catherlough (Carlow), Kilkenny and Wexford. These contained all the province of Leinster, except the following: Upper Ossory, inhabited by the Fitzpatricks, Leix which was inhabited by the Moores, Offaly which was inhabited by the O’Connors, Ely O’Carroll which was inhabited by the O’Carrolls, and some other territories which were inhabited by other various Irish septs. Later in Leinster, the territories of Leix, Offaly and Ely O’Carroll and some others, were reduced into shire-ground in the time of Queen Mary (1553-1558) and then divided into two counties, one called Queen’s County and the other King’s County. The county of Wicklow, which had up to this been vaguely considered as part of the counties of Dublin and Carlow, was made into shire-ground and formed into a separate county in the third year of James I in 1606 approx.
In Munster, King John created the five counties of Waterford, Cork, Kerry, Limerick and Tipperary which at that time formed the province. The provinces of Connaught and Ulster were divided into counties by Statute by Elizabeth I (1558-1603). Connaught had seven counties: Galway, Clare, Roscommon, Mayo, Sligo, Longford and Leitrim. Since then Clare has joined Munster and Longford has moved to Leinster. The province of Ulster was divided into nine counties: namely those of Down, Antrim, Tyrone, Armagh, Monaghan, Cavan, Fermanagh, Donegal and Londonderry (cf. Harris’s Hibernica, p2).
The first sub-division of Counties is into Baronies, largely corresponding with that of Hundreds (or Cantreds) in England. The name, Barony, derives from the sub-division of the conquered land among the Norman barons, hence barony. Other baronies appear to have been formed successively as a result of submissions made by individual Irish chiefs who ruled over them; the territory of each constituting a Barony. This may account for the inequality in size between them and the manner in which parts of many are intermixed among each other in some cases. There were formerly ten baronies in County Limerick: namely Clanwilliam, Lower Conello, Upper Conello, Coonagh, Coshma, Coshlea, Kenry, Oweneybeg, Pubblebrien and Small County. This was later extended to fourteen, including Limerick City Borough, Kilmallock, Shanid and Glenquin.
My own parish of Knockaderry (formerly the parish of Clonelty) was situated in the barony of Glenquin.
The next sub-division into Parishes is of much greater antiquity than that of Baronies. Originally it was purely Ecclesiastical and was introduced among the Civil sub-divisions largely out of convenience. Since all of these sub-divisions were central to the taking up of the Census this particular sub-division has always caused some difficulty as often the Civil and Ecclesiastical arrangements did not always correspond. In the past, parishes were sometimes found to extend not only into other baronies but even into different counties. Added to this you sometimes had the anomaly of parishes belonging to the Established Church differing from those of the Roman Catholic Church. It has to be stated that the establishment of the Parish Rule by the fledgeling Gaelic Athletic Association in the nineteenth century led to a great consolidation of parish boundaries leading to very little room for debate or confusion!
The smallest subdivision of the country is that of Townlands. This name, however, is not universal throughout Ireland: some counties have used the term Ploughlands (Plowlands) instead; each Ploughland being supposed to contain 120 acres approximately. Townlands have, in many instances, been sub-divided, and in many cases, the name has been changed. Many names, now antiquated, were formerly used to designate the smaller sub-divisions of land in Ireland. The following are the most often used:
A Gneeve (from the Irish ‘gníomh’ meaning a deed, a feat, an accomplishment). A ‘gniomh’ was seen as the amount of land that could be encircled or encompassed in a day by a ploughman and his horse ploughing a single furrow. A rule of thumb was that a ‘Gneeve’ contained up to 10 acres but obviously, all depended on the ploughman in question! This sub-division of land is still remembered today in the name given to the parish of Gneeveguilla in North Cork. The placename when translated from the Irish means literally ‘Gníomh go Leith’ (a Gneeve and a half).
A Gort (or garden in Irish) which usually contained 6 acres.
A Pottle contained 12 acres.
A Ballyboe (‘Baile Bó’ meaning literally “cow land”) which in some places could be as large as 60 or 100 acres.
Sessiagh (Irish: séú cuid, meaning sixth part of a quarter or 20 acres).
A Poll (or Pole) containing 50 acres.
A Cartron which contained 60 acres.
A Tagh (or Tate) containing 60 English acres.
A Ballybeatach (Irish: baile biataigh, meaning “victualler’s place”) contained 480 acres (being 8 Ballyboes of 60 acres each)
The Ploughland (Plowland) and the Gneeve are the only names that were noticed by the Census Enumerators in the Censii taken up in 1821 and 1831 that were still in use in some parts of Ireland. At that time the most common land measurement was either the Irish or Plantation Acre, the Cunningham Acre or the English Acre. The difference between these arose from the different lengths of the perch used as a standard in each: the Irish perch was 21 feet, the Cunningham perch was 18.5 feet and the English was 16.5 feet.
Thomas Larcom, the first Director of the Ordnance Survey of Ireland, made a study of the ancient land divisions of Ireland and summarised the traditional hierarchy of land divisions thus:
It is interesting to note the instructions given to the Enumerators before they set out to gather their information for the Census of 1821. They were instructed to ‘execute their duty in the mildest and most inoffensive manner; complying in so far as could be with the feelings of the people and never having recourse to the law except in the most urgent necessity.’ There are notes on what constitutes a family and among other points raised were – ‘strolling beggars were considered as forming distinct families and where met with on the road at a distance from their usual place of residence were entered as residing in the house in which they last lodged.’ It also noted that ‘every collection of contiguous houses, if under twenty, was to be considered as a Hamlet; if more than twenty and not under a peculiar local jurisdiction a Village.’
In the final report of the 1821 Census, we find the following comment – God be with those innocent times! – that in organising the data of the Census ‘in the classification of the Sexes no difficulty occurred’ (Report signed by W. Shaw Mason, Record Tower, Dublin. 11th July 1823).
Kerins, Christy. Archive Records 1800 – 1900 for Ballingarry, Granagh and Clouncagh, County Limerick. A Millenium Project, 2000.
Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life, offers us great opportunities to explore the world of a young boy who is trying to make sense of the adult world around him. Coetzee’s novel is set in South Africa between 1945 and the 1960’s and indeed, it is amazing how uncannily similar boyhood in South Africa and boyhood in small-town Ireland in the late 40’s and 50’s seems to have been! On every page one experiences successive soft shocks of recognition: BSA bicycles, the Meccano set, Superman and Mandrake the Magician on the radio, The Rover and Reader’s Digest, Treasure Island, Swiss Family Robinson, the circus, the head colds in winter and the summer visits to the farm, the secret storms in the heart. As Philip Larkin ruefully has it, in one of his many marvellous poems about childhood, ‘Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.’
Coetzee is admirably honest in his refusal to romanticise his childhood or to portray it as a time of the trembling veil before the adolescent artist stepped forth in all his glory. There was, it seems, precious little bliss in that South African dawn. The young John in Boyhood defines childhood as follows:
Childhood, says the Children’s Encyclopaedia, is a time of innocent joy, to be spent in the meadows amid buttercups and bunny rabbits or at the hearth-side absorbed in a storybook.
This vision of childhood, faintly reminiscent of De Valera’s 1930’s vision of Ireland with ‘comely maidens dancing at the crossroads’, is utterly alien to Coetzee. Nothing he experiences in Worcester, at home or at school, leads him to think that childhood is anything but a time of gritting the teeth and enduring the pain and the shame.
School plays an important role in the growth of our young protagonist. The young John (Coetzee) works hard in school, not out of any real love of learning, but in order not to attract attention, to remain unremarked, untouched:
So this is what is at stake. That is why he never makes a sound in class. That is why he is always neat, why his homework is always done, why he always knows the answer. He dare not slip. If he slips, he risks being beaten: and whether he is beaten or whether he struggles against being beaten, it is all the same, he will die.
(Note: Where Coetzee is concerned, for every ‘he’ read ‘I’!)
The school scenes are very good, catching with shiver-inducing accuracy, the intense, humid, faintly indecent relation that exists between teacher and pupils.
He has three favourite books, Treasure Island, Swiss Family Robinson and Scott of the Antarctic. He is unable to work out if Long John Silver is bad or good and, ‘he only likes the bit about Titus Oates (in Scott of the Antarctic), the man with frostbite who, because he was holding up his companions, went out into the night, into the snow and ice, and perished quietly, without fuss. He hopes he can be like Titus Oates one day.’ !!
Race and religion feature strongly in the novel as you would expect. There are many religious categories and they do not live in harmony, ‘That is how Jews operate, says Norman, you must never trust a Jew.’ In one passage, the young John must choose at school between religious affiliations: ‘Are you a Christian or a Roman Catholic or a Jew?’, he is asked by an impatient teacher. From this multiple-choice quiz, the boy from an atheist family picks Roman Catholic and is thereafter (to his relief) exiled from the school’s official Protestant devotions. But now he has to deal with more than occasional persecution by Protestant bullies – he also arouses the suspicion of his fellow exiles, the Catholic boys who want to know why he is absent from catechism!
A strong feature of the culture of Boyhood is people’s belief in old tales and stories. This again, has great echoes for me of the stories picked up by the young narrator in Seamus Deane’s Reading in the Dark classic. Remember the story told of a local couple who married and the husband went away to sea and was presumed dead? The sailor’s spirit comes back to torment his wife who had taken up with another man while he was away. The priest drove the spirit out, yet at night, the image of a child in pain could be seen in the window. The house concerned was a local one, so people continued to tell that story and the young boy is entranced by it. Similarly, in Boyhood, John welcomes the visits to his grandfather’s sheep farm and the family gatherings that take place there and he listens avidly to the old stories.
Boyhood, I suppose, could be said to be a Portrait of the Artist type novel although the epiphanies are not as major as in Joyce’s work. It is written, like much of Coetzee’s work, in the third person, in the continuous present. In my mind it has great similarities with other favourite novels of mine, Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane and Mark Haddon’s masterpiece The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Indeed, all three novels share a dystopian view of the world but Coetzee more than the other two has a particularly potent brand of stoic desperation in the face of the world! I suppose it has to be allowed that his claim to despair is impeccable: South Africa, after all, where he was born and lives and writes, was until recently a very graphic working model of a dystopian, dysfunctional society. In such richly dreadful circumstances, what novelist could resist writing directly or indirectly about the politics of the day? However, it has to be said that Coetzee’s fiction is also exemplary in the way in which the author flies by the nets of politics and shows, ‘how not to play the game by the rules of the state’. It surely must be both a curse and a blessing for an artist to live in the ‘interesting times’ of a totalitarian regime, as Coetzee is well aware. His real achievement is, however, that all his books are so concentrated, so poised, that they do not solely depend for their power on our knowledge of where and in what circumstances they were written. Surely this is one of the identifying marks of authentic, enduring works of art.
Coetzee recalls the trials and tribulations of growing up in a provincial South African town at a time when apartheid was on everyone’s lips. Indeed, the book could be renamed, Portrait of the Artist as an Afrikaner! South Africa in the 40’s and 50’s was a place very similar to Seamus Deane’s Derry, a place of oppression and cruelty. Coetzee, however, like Deane in the Irish situation, treats apartheid obliquely, distilling its violence in dark fables of devastation that point a finger at South Africa. His themes, like Deane’s, lie where the political, spiritual, the psychological and the physical converge: the nightmare of bureaucratic violence; our forlorn estrangement from the land; and a Shakespearean anxiety about nature put out of its order. Coetzee, in Boyhood, considers it both a curse and a blessing for an artist to live in the ‘interesting times’ of an oppressive regime. Indeed, it can be said that we are given a very subtle ‘Political Education’ in both novels!
For most of Boyhood, the young boy has this sense of being ‘unnatural’, ‘damaged’, and ‘deformed’. But gradually it dawns on him where this apprenticeship in fear and loathing will take him. The young Coetzee is very perceptive and reflective and he has a very close relationship with his mother. Walking one day with her he sees a boy running past, absorbed in himself. The boy is Coloured, as distinct from Native, and is unremarkable, despite having a body that is, ‘perfect and unspoiled, as if it had emerged only yesterday from its shell.’ John knows that if his mother were to call out ‘Boy!’ the coloured boy would have to stop and do whatever she bade him to, such as carrying her shopping basket, and he realises that this boy, ‘who is slim as an eel and quick as a hare,’ is a living reproof to him, and embarrassed, ‘he squirms and wriggles his shoulders and does not want to look at him any longer, despite his beauty.’
He oscillates in his allegiances between his father and his mother. He joins his father in mockery of his mother when she buys a bicycle and tries to ride it, yet he has never worked out the position of his father in the household, and in fact ‘it is not obvious to him by what right his father is there at all’. He wishes his father would beat him, ‘and turn him into a normal boy,’ yet he knows too that if his father were indeed to beat him, ‘he would become possessed, like a rat in a corner, hurtling about, snapping with its poisonous fangs, too dangerous to be touched.’ By the close of the book, when the family has moved to Cape Town, the father has sunk into debt, failure, and alcoholism, and as he sinks, the mother rises: ‘It is as though she is inviting calamities upon herself for no other purpose than to show the world how much she can endure.’
However, the young Coetzee is strident in his acknowledgement that he owes much to his upbringing, especially to the influence of his mother. She has bequeathed to him an artistic vision, an ability to reflect and observe. He hates the dull, uninspiring essays he is asked to do in class and admits that if he could he would write something far darker, stranger, far more mysterious: ‘Like spilt ink, like shadows racing across the face of still water, like lightening crackling across the sky.’
On the other hand, his father is a major disappointment. He has waged war on him from an early age but it is only towards the end of the novel that we realise how serious the situation is. The family are bankrupt as a result of his gambling and alcoholism and he pours scorn on what he considers to be a pathetic figure. His mother continues to support her husband, to the boy’s amazement, defending him with the barbed comment, ‘Wait until you have children’. He comes to realise, however, that she is the rock at the centre of his precarious existence and in one of the many epiphanies in the book he comments: ‘This woman was not brought into the world for the sole purpose of loving him and protecting him and taking care of his wants.’ He has huge respect for her and he says towards the end of the novel, ‘he would rather be blind and deaf than know what she thinks of him.’
Overall, Boyhood presents us with a rather bleak vision. Coetzee has written elsewhere that South African literature is precisely what you would expect from people living in prison. Boyhood gives us a clear insight into the prison that the notoriously private Coetzee has himself inhabited: drab suburban housing estates; an alcoholic, distant father, his business career decaying; an overly intimate long-suffering mother. This is the story of millions of 20th. century families everywhere in the developed world. But Boyhood is more than this. However, it is primarily an internal account, the story of an exquisitely painful – almost autistic – self-consciousness, a subjectivity so sensitive and so tender that it seems like ‘a crab pulled out of its shell, pink and wounded and obscene.’ The novel seems to suggest that the best we can do is to try to keep ourselves sane by continuous reflection. No hope is offered. There is no happy ending and we do not observe an improvement in John’s relationship with his father or his mother. If anything he manages to maintain a cold detachment from both throughout.
Tony Humphreys, a noted clinical psychologist, author and all-round guru, has written a very popular book called, TheFamily: Love it and Leave it. This is the great adventure which the young protagonist in Boyhood undertakes. He is endeavouring to cope with his family situation as best he can. Coetzee ends up writing to make sense of the world he lives in. In fact, he appears to be casting about in his childhood for the roots of his success as a writer: Did it spring from his marginal social position as an English speaker from an Afrikaner background; or from his intensely passionate, sentimental attachment to his father’s family farm; or from the smothering affection of his mother, which made him feel like a solitary specimen, both protected and deformed? Whichever is the correct version, he feels compelled to write his way out of his own South African prison; and we all benefit from his struggle.
About the Author….
John Maxwell Coetzee is a South African novelist, essayist, linguist, translator and recipient of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature. Before receiving the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature, Coetzee was awarded the Jerusalem Prize, CNA Prize (three times), the Prix Femina Étranger, The Irish Times International Fiction Prize and the Booker Prize (twice), among other accolades. He relocated to Australia in 2002 and lives in Adelaide. He became an Australian citizen in 2006.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is set in an ordinary suburban street in Swindon sometime in the late twentieth century. Christopher, the main character, suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome and is confined to his house and his mainly scientific hobbies. He rarely ventures into his neighbourhood and his main venture each day is to attend a special school. However, later in the novel, he undertakes a major adventure, which leads to his exploring the city of London and discovering its ways.
Christopher’s family unit is under a lot of pressure – mainly due to the stress involved in bringing up a young boy with autism. Christopher’s parents separate and other family’s in the neighbourhood also experience marriage break-up. His father lies about the disappearance of Christopher’s mother. She eventually leaves because she can no longer cope. She has an affair with her neighbour, whose wife, in turn, has an affair with Christopher’s dad. He doesn’t really understand these developments and he is more of a loner than a family member. It can be said that the comings and goings, the trials and tribulations, which befall Christopher are similar to those that befall many who live in a present-day urban setting.
Christopher’s life revolves around maths and what colour cars he sees in the morning. He is innocence in its subtlest form. He lives with his Father. When he finds his neighbour’s dog dead in the garden with a garden fork sticking out of his stomach, he sets out to find who the murderer is. This leads him to many a revelation and a world that Christopher isn’t used to. So, he decides (as does his helper Siobhan) that he should write a book about the events that occur after the dog’s death. So, that’s what he does. And that’s The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time by Mark Haddon.
This debut novel by Mark Haddon introduces us to the irresistible voice of his fifteen-year-old narrator, Christopher Boone, and this is what elevates this novel to fantastic heights.
It was 7 minutes after midnight. The dog was lying on the grass in the middle of the lawn in front of Mrs Shears’ house. Its eyes were closed. It looked as if it was running on its side, the way dogs run when they think they are chasing a cat in a dream. But the dog was not running or asleep. The dog was dead. There was a garden fork sticking out of the dog. The points of the fork must have gone all the way through the dog and into the ground because the fork had not fallen over. I decided that the dog was probably killed with the fork because I could not see any other wounds in the dog and I do not think you would stick a garden fork into a dog after it had died for some other reason, like cancer for example, or a road accident. But I could not be certain about this.
I went through Mrs Shears’ gate, closing it behind me. I walked onto her lawn and knelt beside the dog. I put my hand on the muzzle of the dog. It was still warm.
The dog was called Wellington. It belonged to Mrs Shears who was our friend. She lived on the opposite side of the road, two houses to the left.
Wellington was a poodle. Not one of the small poodles that have hairstyles but a big poodle. It had curly black fur, but when you got close you could see that the skin underneath the fur was a very pale yellow, like chicken.
I stroked Wellington and wondered who had killed him, and why.
“This is a murder mystery novel,” Christopher explains a few pages further on. Reading was for him a way of opening the doors of his imagination and allowing it to run free. As a child, he had the ability to think things out in detail. This ability helped him piece the truth together from the flimsy snippets of information he had acquired. Christopher Boone is a great fan of Sherlock Holmes and especially his detective masterpiece, The Hound of the Baskervilles. Indeed, it is this novel which gives him the idea that he should become a detective and investigate the killing of his neighbour’s dog, Wellington. “In a murder mystery novel someone has to work out who the murderer is and then catch them,” he reasons. “It is a puzzle.”
Christopher is quite good at puzzles.
His discovery of letters written by his ‘dead’ mother leads him to try and solve another mystery. His father tries to protect his son by telling him that his mother has died when in fact they have separated and she has gone to live with her new partner in London. Christopher’s discovery of letters written by his mother after her ‘death’ gives rise to a major breakdown in trust between himself and his father and also to his heroic efforts to be reunited with his mother.
Christopher is also very good at mathematics, and at remembering, and he proves to us many times in the book how good he is. For fun, and to calm himself down, he squares the number two over and over again. At times it’s rather scary that he can do it, and you wonder what it must be like to be like that. To be so capable of one thing – doing mathematics – and being so incapable of another thing – living a life. It’s heartbreaking. Even when it comes to numbering the chapters in his book the chapter numbers don’t go in order of ascending numbers, as is usual, but Christopher instead uses prime numbers.
Christopher is entirely incapable of delineating among the various grades of human emotion on the scale between happy and sad, which makes for a curious, if not altogether perplexing narrative perspective. Reporting on the conversations and interactions around him with virtually no understanding of their portent, Christopher surely ranks among the most hard-boiled detectives in all of literature. Logic dictates, indisputably. His brain is a one-party political system with no room for checks and balances – no fifty shades of grey here!
Christopher may not recognize them, but emotions lurk behind virtually every clue he uncovers. Still, his pitch never varies. Christopher never slips off course. That dissonance, the weighty, shifting space between the story Christopher is telling and the one we are reading exposes depths of insight and feeling no simple, straightforward narrative could hope to provide in so few pages. At certain times in the novel we feel great empathy for Christopher’s father: after all, Christopher is quite content with who he is and it is his father who has to watch him be how he is.
The Curious Incident is a unique novel, as Christopher’ narration gives us a powerful insight into the autistic mind. So while he is brilliant at science and maths (at one point, he quickly calculates 2 to the power of 15!) its people he finds complicated. With their devious ways and moods, people aren’t ‘logical’. By allowing us to observe Christopher’s thought processes, Mark Haddon shows us our illogical world in all its duplicity, while at the same time witnessing Christopher’s awkward behaviour getting him into countless rows with his family, friends, and teachers.
“Not liking yellow things or brown things and refusing to touch yellow things or brown things” is, in fact, one of Christopher’s Behavioural Problems. He does not like dirt, gravy, wood, or poo, or anything brown for that matter, including Melissa Brown, a girl at his school. And if on the bus ride to school he was to see four yellow cars in a row, to cite one extreme manifestation of his dislike for all things yellow, it would be “a Black Day, which is a day when I don’t speak to anyone and sit on my own reading books and don’t eat my lunch and Take No Risks.” To Christopher, despite sensible arguments to the contrary, this behaviour makes perfect sense.
Mrs Forbes said that hating yellow and brown is just being silly. And Siobhan said that she shouldn’t say things like that and everyone has favourite colours. And Siobhan was right. But Mrs Forbes was a bit right, too. Because it is sort of being silly. But in life, you have to take lots of decisions and if you don’t take decisions you would never do anything because you would spend all your time choosing between things you could do. So it is good to have a reason why you hate some things and you like others. It is like being in a restaurant like when Father takes me out to a Berni Inn sometimes and you look at the menu and you have to choose what you are going to have. But you don’t know if you are going to like something because you haven’t tasted it yet, so you have favourite foods and you choose these, and you have foods you don’t like and you don’t choose these, and then it is simple.
“This will not be a funny book,” Christopher warns readers. “I cannot tell jokes because I do not understand them.” And it’s true: Christopher cannot process anything but the most literal statements. Metaphors, to his way of thinking, are lies. Implying that one thing is another — it’s more than confusing; it’s downright dishonest.
One of the great triumphs of the novel is the way Christopher’s hyper-logical voice comes across to the reader as a brilliant brand of dry, deadpan humour. The story, quite funny to begin with, gets funnier still upon rereading, without the distractions and misdirection imposed by its underlying suspense.
If the book’s economical (and spot-on) dialogue allows a reader to see through Christopher’s obfuscating narration and straight into the heart of the characters — it’s only when we hear the characters speak that we gain a proper context for Christopher’s severely limited perspective — Haddon’s dialogue also provides tremendous opportunities for comedy. Christopher’s exchange with a policeman in a station of the Underground could well have been lifted directly from the vaudeville stage. Christopher is the straight man, nonpareil.
And I said, “What does single or return mean?”
And he said, “Do you want to go one way, or do you want to go and come back?”
And I said, “I want to stay there when I get there.”
And he said, “For how long?”
And I said, “Until I go to university.”
And he said, “Single, then,” and then he said, “That’ll be £32.”
Christopher’s narration can be hilarious on one page, then two pages later you want to cry!
When Christopher sets out on his brave but dangerous journey to London, the minutia finally overwhelms him. The swarming crowds, noise raging in every direction, and everywhere signs bearing alien, incomprehensible messages… it’s all too unfamiliar, and before long it’s too much for him to manage.
Here, not for the first time, Christopher’s investigation inadvertently exposes raw, difficult truths about our modern lives. In the bustling train station, Christopher practically collapses from sensory overload; you can almost hear his fuses pop (it sounds like groaning). We don’t exactly empathize with Christopher. There’s a border we can’t cross, despite Mark Haddon’s virtuoso performance. However, at the end of the novel, we finally realize, no matter how great our efforts at empathy, that nothing could ever make us truly appreciate the unending alienation Christopher suffers.
And finally, I come to the writing. One of the best elements of the book. As I’ve mentioned its simplicity is its brilliance. Haddon, somehow or other, obviously through months, if not years, of research has managed to get into the mind of a boy who suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome. He’s managed to write an insightful, unbelievably fascinating novel that is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, if not ever. Books like The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time don’t come along very often, so we must cherish it like it’s gold. Because, really, it is. To not read The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time is most certainly the biggest crime of all. To not learn about Asperger’s Syndrome afterwards is an even bigger one.
“Here is a narrator who seems to be hugely ill-equipped for writing a book,” the author Mark Haddon aptly notes, “He can’t understand metaphor; he can’t understand other people’s emotions; he misses the bigger picture. And yet it makes him incredibly well suited to narrating a book. He never explains too much. He never tries to persuade the reader to feel about things this way or that way. He just kind of paints this picture and says, ‘Make of it what you will.'”
Yet, while there are pessimistic elements in the novel: his family is dysfunctional; he is anti-social; he imagines humans becoming extinct; on his journey to London he experiences many of the negative aspects of human behaviour, yet I think the overall vision is a positive one. He fulfils his life plan and gains an A Grade in his A-Level exams, he solves the murder mystery, he discovers the truth about his ‘dead’ mother and is safely reunited with her, he succeeds in writing a book, and he triumphs over his fears on his London journey. Christopher’s father makes up with him by buying him a dog, the first step in re-establishing the trust that had been badly damaged by his father’s lying to him.
The greatness of Haddon’s novel is that when we come to understand the young Christopher’s view of the world, we understand his responses and we see the validity and richness of Christopher’s interpretations. And we come to believe him when after getting an A Grade in his Maths A-Level he says, towards the end, that he WILL go to university and WILL live in a flat with a garden along with his new dog Sandy, his books and his computer. And he WILL get a First Class Honours Degree and WILL become a scientist. ‘And I know I can do this because I went to London on my own and because I solved the mystery of Who Killed Wellington … and I was brave and I wrote a book and that means I can do anything.’