Review of ‘Boyhood – Scenes from Provincial Life’ by J.M. Coetzee

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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, The Family: 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.





Satin Island by Tom McCarthy


Satin Island: A Novel for the Google Generation.

I came away from this novel knowing, like the fakir of old, that I was merely touching the flank of the elephant.  So, my review, if such it is, like all reviews is limited and very subjective.  I’m reminded here of the acerbic comment of John B. Keane, the great playwright from Listowel, County Kerry, who once remarked about critics and reviewers of his plays, that, “They are like eunuchs – they see it happening each night in front of their eyes, but they can’t do it themselves”.

The chief narrator of this novel is called U.  He is an anthropologist, an ethnographer working for a nameless, faceless Corporation and he is answerable only to the almighty Peyman (sic).  As an anthropologist, U doesn’t like Corporations: “Forget family, or ethnic or religious groupings: corporations have supplanted all these as the primary structure of the modern tribe.”  U’s assorted, seemingly unconnected, ramblings, dreams, visions and hallucinations are presented to us, the reader, as learned treatise/thesis/dissertation/official report with their accompanying sections and clauses and sub-clauses.

U is a loner, he is obsessive, highly intelligent and a perfect cipher for our modern age.  He is, of course, an expert in all things IT, and is surrounded by the latest gadgetry at all times, laptops, phones, TV’s, servers.  He spends his days in the bowels of this giant Corporation, clicking and scrolling and buffering his way to new, seemingly unconnected, pieces of information, which he then gathers in dossiers for inclusion in his Great Report.  This report has been commissioned by his boss, Peyman, and the mysterious promoters of the Koob-Sassen Project.

Like many a modern protagonist before him, U’s life is narrow and relatively unexciting.  The novel has a number of recurring touchstone motifs; his only friend Petr, his workplace colleague Daniel, his lover Madison and his obsessive building of dossiers on oil slick occurrences across the globe, coupled with the strange recurring incidents of parachutists being killed when their chutes don’t open.

Despite its formal appearance and structure, the novel often reads like a dramatic monologue, a very modern stream of consciousness, akin to Joyce’s, Finnegan’s Wake.  There are long, almost Biblical-like tracts of visions, revelations, fantasies and dreams – and the ever-present references to The Great Report.  So, despite appearing like a report, what we have here is a narrator who has the skills and the training of an academic report writer who decides to cut loose and in the guise of a report, he writes a novel of substance – what we are presented with here, therefore, is a novel masquerading as a report!

In Chapter 11, U recounts a very germane anecdote, which may go far to explaining this conundrum and also the mercurial mindset of the novel’s narrator: How come this very official looking Report/Treatise/Thesis is full of dream sequences, chance meetings and sometimes barely credible events?  U tells us that in his book, Tristes Tropiques, his hero, Levi-Strauss (with a hyphen!), the famous anthropologist, speaks of having spent months with the Nambikwara tribe deep in the tropical jungle, with no prospect of an early egress, marooned by the onset of the rainy season, rivers flooded and un-navigable, all food, wine, bottled water, cigarettes consumed or traded. Then bored out of his skull, he says he fell prey to what he called “a mental disorder” that can sometimes affect anthropologists – he started to compose an epic drama on the back of the sheets of paper containing his research notes. If I could use a rather dated analogy: what U produces here is a vinyl B side – while he psyches himself to compile his Great Report, which will define his career, and be the report to beat all other reports; while he flounders in the urban jungles of Stockholm or New York or London, waiting for inspiration and motivation and for this bout of procrastination to abate and before The Big Idea for The Great Report takes hold – he gives us Satin Island!

U has been patiently waiting for someone like Tom McCarthy to come along and put him under the microscope for some time now.  Who is he?  He is an urban anthropologist of the NOW, the Present, The Contemporary.  He is, like the Jesuits of old, masters of the art of discernment: he is essentially a Discerner of the Zeitgeist.  He tells us himself: “I am an anthropologist. Structure of kinship; systems of exchange, barter and gift; symbolic operation lurking on the flip side of the habitual and the banal: identifying these, prising them out and holding them up, kicking and wriggling, to the light – that’s my racket.”  He tells us that his modus operandi is to feed, “vanguard theory, almost always from the left side of the spectrum, back into the corporate machine”.  He sees his role as one of purveying cultural insight.  By this he means, ‘that we unpick the fibre of a culture, it’s weft and warp – the situation it throws up, the beliefs that underpin and nourish it – and let a client in on how they can best get traction on this fibre so that they can introduce into the weave their own fine, silken (Satin?) thread, strategically embroider or detail it with a mini-narrative, i.e. sell their product’.

U is a proponent, maybe the inventor of the term Present-Tense AnthropologyTM, “an anthropology that bathes in presence, and in nowness – bathed in it as in a deep, bubbling and nymph-saturated well”.  In Chapter 9 he goes to a conference in Frankfurt to deliver a paper, “on the anthropology of The Contemporary”.  He delivers his paper and gets an under-whelming response from those attending.  Typical of his character, he returns to his underground lair in London and in a powerful dream-like sequence delivers the paper he should have delivered in Frankfurt to great imagined acclaim – his fifteen minutes of fame?

Throughout the novel we are treated to glimpses of U’s viewpoint and his wry humour.  By his own admission, anthropologists are two-a-penny, “A famous anthropologist, even one with a real book out, is about as well known as a third-division footballer”.  As already mentioned, he is a firm believer in the Present, the Now.  According to U, “the Future is the biggest shaggy dog story of all”.  Elsewhere he gives us this chilling reminder of our Now world: “Walk down any stretch of street, and you’re being filmed by three cameras at once – and even if you aren’t the phone you carry in your pocket pinpoints and logs your location at each given moment.  Each website that you visit, every click-through, every keystroke is archived: even if you hit delete, wipe, empty trash, it’s still lodged somewhere, in some fold or enclave, some occluded avenue of circuitry”.

So, U, is both a product and a student of our age and this novel is aimed at the many bright, highly qualified, trapped individuals, who do the work for faceless Corporations, quietly in the background in their little well organised, disconnected cadres, in their underground offices, the underworld of bandwidth, servers, computers, cables, bits and bytes and megabytes, memory banks, satellite dishes – and of course, the constant curse of buffering!

As you can see, my focus has been, and rightly so, on U, the main protagonist.  Where then does the title, Satin Island, come from?  If anything the novel should be titled, Staten Island, but maybe that’s already out there!  Satin fits in with his overall obsession with the soft, velvety, viscosity of oil and the earlier references to the weave and warp and weft of the work of an anthropologist.  Anyway, the title comes to U in “a splendid dream” in Chapter 12!  In this dream he flies (like Icarus?) over a harbour, by a city.  Later, he describes beautifully the frenetic movement around, “the half-completed Freedom Towers” where, “the thrum of a sight-seeing helicopter…. its glass nose sniffing the ground…… the intermittent beep-beep-beep of reversing buses broke up the chopper blades deep gut-vibrating frequencies”.  He makes a rather pointless journey to Battery Park and South Ferry to take the ferry to Staten Island only to balk at the very last moment, deciding, rather annoyingly, not to take the ferry after all.

However, I hope you can see that I’ve enjoyed reading Satin Island by Tom McCarthy.  Jonathan Cape pulled out all the stops here.  The book feels good, and it looks good and oily and velvety!  I even liked the typeset Dante MT – all these things are vitally important for booklovers and readers!  There are odd moments in the novel, let’s be honest, when you feel like the little boy who announces that the Emperor has no clothes – but these are very rare.  I haven’t been as excited about a shortlisted Booker novel since Seamus Deane’s, Reading in the Dark, in 1996 – so my run of honourable runners-up continues! Tom McCarthy’s novel is innovative, well crafted and challenging.  It contains great modern insights, great humour and the odd ‘epiphanic tingling’ along the way.

It is, in effect, a novel for the Google Generation. (In fact, how did he write the novel without mentioning that corporate word!).  It is written for all those restless readers who scroll and search and tweet and like and befriend online; those users of WiFi and 3G and 4G – their iPhone and iPad at the ready to comment, to blog, to email their Nowness to the world.

I predict this novel will be a runaway success in the airport bookstores at Torino-Caselle and all the other homogeneous airport hubs around our restless world, wherever people like U and his contemporaries bide their time between connecting flights!

This novel is breaking new ground, a breath of fresh air, at times a tour de force.  I highly recommend you to be bold and to venture forth and feel the elephant’s flank!

Tom Mc Carthy, Literarischer Salon Hannover

Reading in the Dark – An Interview with Seamus Deane Revisited


“I have confidence that there will be a solution (to the Northern Ireland conflict),  maybe by the year 2020 when we all have 2020 vision”                        – Seamus Deane

Reading in the Dark has attracted enormous critical attention and acclaim: ‘we are in the territory of the power of the word’ (Anne Devlin, The Independent, August 1996); ‘a thriller of such enigmatic depth that even when all is revealed, its mystery does not dissolve … a masterpiece of eloquence distilled’ (Laura Cumming, The Guardian, December 1996).  Reading in the Dark was the 1996 Guardian Fiction Prize-winner and was shortlisted for the 1996 Booker Prize.  A literary critic, poet and Irish republican, what Seamus Deane wants to represent – growing up in Northern Ireland in the forties and fifties, political treachery, sectarian violence, rumour, hauntings, family secrets – makes particular demands on the written word, literary forms and on the reader. 

The English & Media Centre interviewed Seamus Deane for their publication and video, Three Modern Novels at A Level.  In the interview extracts that follow, Seamus Deane throws some light on the writing process, family secrets and Northern Ireland. 

The novel’s landscape is drawn from the intimately domestic, from political history and from Irish legend.  This short, original and captivating book, composed of many self-contained stories or ‘prose poems’ is described by Terry Eagleton as, ‘a working-class, Republican version of Irish gothic … it occupies some transitional zone between fiction and autobiography’ (New Statesman & Society, August 1996).

The writing process: editing memory

This novel was a long time in the making.  It began as a series of flash memories that were recounted.  Those memories accumulated, and as they accumulated they were written and re-written.  Then I realised that the memories actually had a lot of raw material but, like in a movie, by positioning one piece beside another, each actually became more powerful because of its neighbourhood with the other.  In fact, the novel, since it was told from the point of view of a young boy, couldn’t proceed by large, sustained blocks; the flash image was part of the key to the structure.  The next part of the key was to put the images in certain kinds of sequence that would both make them more powerful in themselves, but also attract or seduce the reader into wondering not only what happens next, but what is the relationship between these parts, because you can see a relationship in part, but you can’t see all of it initially, it has to unfold.  I use those sharp pieces almost like arranging crystals into patterns, until I finally found a pattern that I thought did justice to the narrative.  And did justice also to the strange experience of the young boy in actually uncovering something piece by piece by piece, and then only towards the end being able to see the whole thing in perspective.

One of the reasons I called it Reading in the Dark is that one of my earliest memories of reading was reading late at night, lying in bed with my three brothers, two at the top, two at the bottom.  Of course they would frequently object, and after some altercation, the light would have to be switched off.  So I would lie there in the dark imagining the unfinished novel that I’d been reading.  So I lay there reading in the dark, in that sense.  And then, of course, this is what the kid is doing in the novel, he’s ‘in the dark’ about a family secret and at last in some ways he learns to read in that dark, to read the secret, in some ways to his regret.

Differences between poetry and prose

I suppose that, in my limited experience, the outstanding feature in relation to the novel is that the novel must produce a story, a narrative.  It may be difficult to follow parts of the narrative, nevertheless everything, in some sense of the word, must be explained.  Whereas in poetry I think it is possible to leave a great deal unexplained.  Part of the power of poetry is, in fact, in leaving something cryptic and letting it, so to say, leak out slowly in repeated readings for the reader.  But if a novel tries to work like that I think it becomes another kind of narrative.  The narrative element must have a degree of explanation and self-explanation constantly working within it, so that the reader knows where he or she is at any given point.

And there is a relationship between the writing of this novel and the writing of poetry for me.  There are a number of poems that I’ve written, published years ago that bear directly upon this novel and in fact I think I might have raided one of those poems for a phrase or two on occasion.  But once I’d decided to structure the novel in these little carry on pieces then what I wanted to do was to intensify each piece as much as I could so that it would have what poetry very often has, this strange combination of being very exact, very finely edged, and yet at the same time somehow amorphous.  It’s as if you can see something clearly through a mist, that kind of relationship which most poetry can generate.  It’s like a resonance, it’s like striking a musical instrument, striking a key and then hearing, if you had the ears to hear, that the echo went on and on and on.

Writing the truth

I wanted to present the novel as a reflection of the way in which a child would see the world.  But I also wanted to present the novel as something which is dealing with this strange and elusive thing called the truth.  I wanted to transmit to the reader that there’s certainly a connection between knowing the facts of a situation and knowing the truth of a situation, but that the facts and the truth are not entirely coincident one with the other.  And it’s that strange, sometimes distorted relationship between fact and truth that I wanted to gradually expose, because by the time all the facts are in, the truth of the young boy’s situation, he is in a combat with the demons that have been released by those facts, and he doesn’t know.  I mean there are some things he doesn’t really know and can’t know, because they’re not known at the level of fact.  So it’s that kind of inter-connection that is part of the reason for the way the novel unfolds and exfoliates, inch by inch, and not, apparently, in chronological sequence.  But there are other sequences beside the chronological and they’re deliberately there, in order to say, the fact is here but the truth of that fact is larger than the fact.

My mother saw one section of the novel before she died.  Her first reaction was, ‘Well, that’s very nicely written.’  And then she said, ‘But of course it’s not true.’  And then she said, ‘When did you hear all of this anyway?’  And I said, ‘Well, in fact, everything you’ve just read I heard from you, you told me all that.’  This was the section about the grandfather and the policeman, who was put over the bridge.  And she said, ‘I didn’t tell you that.’  But I know she did.  Then later she came back to me and said, ‘Well, whatever the case, just don’t ever publish it.’  And I said, ‘Okay.’  But I said to myself silently, not while you’re alive, no, I won’t.  And I couldn’t publish it when other people were alive, not only my parents.  I could have written it, but I couldn’t have published it before their death.

Secrets and lies

I was concerned to explore a love relationship between my parents, and I was concerned to explore something in that love relationship which I knew carried a shadow.  From the beginning the mother tells the boy there is a shadow, there’s a shadow on the stairs.  Of course stories about ghosts and shadows are frequently used, certainly in Ireland, as code stories for other things that are taboo.  Things like stolen children.  Children stolen by the fairies are very often a code way of talking about a woman who abandoned an unwanted child.

So I knew that in some way the heart of the story was the relationship between the parents.  I knew that in some way that relationship harboured a secret, and as the boy in the novel discovers, it’s a secret of such intimacy that his entering into it is interfering with it, exploring it.  Actually it damages the relationship between his parents.  That’s where his sense of terrible guilt ultimately comes from.  The two people he loved, not only loved them but loved the fact that they loved one another.  He loved them for loving one another, and then he destroys or damages that love relationship.  I suppose it was that I wanted to explore.  I really think that kind of relationship is, now I’m guessing here, is more frequently found in political cultures that are troubled, that have had various forms of oppression visited upon them and therefore have developed modes of secrecy.  And those modes of secrecy are not just political, they become also personal.  And in the story I’m telling here, the political and the personal are so intertwined that you can’t say where one leaves off and the other begins.

I wanted to write about the process of discovery, but the writing about the process of discovery was itself another form of discovery.  It was both retrieval of something that I have known and I had experienced, but was also finally coming to terms with it and to some extent, it was like an act of self-forgiveness.  I felt how the child in the fiction feels.  In some ways he has done a profound injustice to both his parents in different ways, and yet he has another feeling that there was no avoiding this.  He is and he is not responsible.  And I suppose the process of the discovery was not only finding out the various pieces of information, but each piece of information also carried its weight of feeling, of emotion, and it was a matter of finding, finally finding, some way of balancing that emotion.  I’m not even sure now whether I’ve done that or not. I’ve had, not exactly second thoughts, but little quivers of doubt that still survive.

Ireland: colonised cultures

The mother’s grief is in some ways aligned to Irish history in that it is something that is real, that is actual and yet that cannot be articulated, cannot fully be represented, even to herself, never mind by herself to others.  That’s a maimed condition that is frequent in colonised societies.  Ireland knows this problem to an unwanted degree by now.  The problem is that in a colonised country you’re always represented by the coloniser, you’re represented in a particular way, you know, through stereotypes of various kinds.

The effect of stereotypes is that they have an almost chemical working; they work within the communities to such a degree that you actually begin to find people behaving according to the stereotype.  The stereotype sometimes can be benign, sometimes malign, but the problem of being stereotyped is that you’re always being represented by somebody else.  If it’s a powerful culture that is colonising you, you really have very little space to find some alternative way of representing yourself.  You can do it, of course, in a different language, if you have the different language, but if you’re in the Irish condition where you had a language, lost it, and the only language you have is the language in which you’re stereotyped in then you have to take a peculiar position on that language to escape from it.  The mother is, in her grief, taking the shock, the trauma of a history into herself, but can find no escape from it.

Treachery and betrayal: the personal and the political

I am saying both something about the nature of political struggle and I’m saying something about the mysterious nature of human relationships.  The constant element within all of the relationships is that of betrayal.  You know, there are a variety of forms of betrayal: there is the outright, coarse McIlhenny kind of betrayal, and then there are all the subtler more seductive modes of treachery which nevertheless are also very deeply destructive.  Within a political culture that operates in its militant mould through, what is in effect, a secret guerrilla army, then you have an army that depends upon secrecy.  The biggest threat to such an army always is betrayal, and it’s a feature of many insurgent movements, and it certainly has been the case in Irish history, that the traitor is a particularly hated, but also a particularly frequent, creature.

If you have something suppressed, if you have great pressure bearing down upon a community, then within that community there is going to be all sorts of ways of dealing with that pressure of which secrecy is one.  And secrecy’s other face is always betrayal.  The terrible problem of betrayal in human relationships is that if you are betrayed by someone whom you loved, one of the first effects of betrayal is to make you feel, ‘I never knew that person’, ‘I don’t know her’, ‘I don’t know him’.  And that person suddenly loses substance, becomes almost shadowy.  That is one of the functions of shadows within this novel.  Something that’s real and yet at the same time is unreal, just the way somebody whom you thought you knew can almost instantaneously become unreal to you if you find out that some terrible betrayal has been taking place without your knowledge, and especially if it’s been done over a long time.

(Note:  Tony McIlhenny is at the centre of the family secret.  He betrayed everyone – his lover (the narrator’s mother), his wife (Katie, his mother’s sister) and their unborn child, the IRA, and Eddie (the narrator’s uncle), who was mistakenly executed by the IRA as an informer while McIlhenny fled to America.)

Fire and darkness: representations of Derry

The North is a gothic place.  Fire, bonfire, violence, ritual, marches, drums, that’s part of the ritual of a very enclosed and a very explosive society.  The North is a place dominated by rituals like Orange marches, bonfires on the 12th. July, the burning of the effigy of the traitor Lundy every December from a pillar.  That was one of the things I always remember about December.  In fact, Derry is a city which has, as its central story, its great historical story (at least on the Protestant side), of a city besieged by Catholic armies.  This man called Lundy tried to open the gates to the Catholic besiegers.  So every year, in the heart of winter we see the traitor burned from a pillar on a hill.  This giant twenty-foot high figure, always in black, stuffed with rockets and soaked in petrol, would loll on the pillar before they set fire to it.  I remember a dark December day and this exploding traitor on the pillar.

Then we also have our own bonfires on the 15th. August every year.  The physical darkness of the place is emblematic of the political condition of the place.  All through the novel there is a link between darkness and fire and intimacy as well as between intimacy and violence.  From that distillery fire forward the young child actually sees the city as a city that is in some sense burning, always burning.  His mother says when she’s in her distress, ‘There’s something always burning there.’  You can hear the sound of a fire in a society that is breaking down.  You can hear the sound of the disintegration if you listen with sufficient care.  So that’s why the city appears so dark because it is a city in a dark condition, a condition of entrapment.

Fantasy and realism: form and conventions

Folklore and legend were important in my own childhood.  For me there were two major formal elements in the fiction.  There was the kind of element that one would associate with folk telling, folk stories, and there was the kind of element that one would associate with novels.  Now the difference between those two, as famously has been said by somebody, is that a novel understands answers, gives an answer to a problem, whereas in a folk story you don’t seek for an answer.  The listener to a folk story actually simply says, ‘Ah, the wonder of it, the world is a strange place.’  The folk story is full of wonder, the novel is much more rational as a form, and I wanted to keep precisely those two things in relation, one to the other, because that, in effect, is what the young boy is experiencing: the sense of wonder and the recognition that the only proper response to what he’s undergoing is really just to shake his head and say, the world is a strange place.

But then the novelistic element that involves some of those ingredients such as the ingredient of the thriller and social realism and so forth, that’s the element that allows him to ask, ‘Why? What happened?  When?  Why did it happen?  Why didn’t somebody do this?’  And that variety of question is scattered all through the novel.  The sense of mystery and wonder that is alongside it is almost an antidote to the questioning intelligence of the young boy.  I keep thinking and speaking of this novel as a matter of balancing, crystallising, patterning so that the various elements which would normally be in conflict, like the element of folk story and novel, come in to harmony.

 Different literacies: oral cultures

The Northern Ireland I grew up in was a place that for my generation was transformed by the socialist legislation passed by the Labour government in the mid 1940s, especially the Free Education Act.  Up until then it had been really an oral culture rather than a highly literate culture.  I had an actual Aunt Katie, the Katie that is commemorated in this novel.  One of her functions in life as far as I was concerned was to scare me helpless every night with the stories that she would tell.  She would sit on a chair or at the end of the bed, and she would tell stories, some of which she invented, some of which she was passing on, that she had heard.

Later when I went to places like the West of Donegal, to the Irish speaking areas, I heard some of the Seanachies, as they’re called, the traditional storytellers, telling traditional tales in Irish, and these tales were well known to everybody in the neighbourhood.  The people treated the Seanachies the way you would treat a great singer.  You know the song, you just want to hear this particular rendition of it, how he or she is going to treat this.  So I remember sitting in a little house in West Donegal, listening to my first Seanachie, and I suddenly realised this is the tradition out of which Katie came.  This is the tradition which was still alive when I was growing up, but was beginning to be replaced by the tradition of school, education, university, that sort of thing.  I think I was pretty fortunate in that respect, for an overlap of several years the two were intermingled.  The oral tradition was very quickly destroyed.  It was dealt the death blow by modern media, though it still survived in a residual way in some parts of the West of Ireland.  But it doesn’t any longer have the natural life that it once did have, can’t have in present conditions.

The importance of language in Irish history and literature

Language is important in Irish history for a variety of reasons.  I mean it has left us in that condition Yeats spoke of once, not of course that Yeats knew the Irish (language), but he says, ‘English is my native language but not my mother tongue.’  That’s a very curious position to be in.  The relationship between the language and the search for the integrity of independence is a story about a meaning too, because while, of course, there’s great pressure on the Irish to speak English, the people who are most effective in destroying the Irish language were the Irish themselves.

You know, there was the terrible memento of what they called the tally stick, which was on a string and put round the neck of a schoolchild.  And if the schoolchild spoke Irish a notch was made on the stick, and when the child went home he was beaten for every notch for having spoken Irish, because they were trying to persuade them, your economic future is in the English language.  But then of course they realised that this actually was a form of self-mutilation, but too late.  It’s a permanent form of self-mutilation and so the mutilation that goes with colonialism, or goes with oppression, also leads to forms of self-mutilation and one of the areas in which it is most powerfully felt, is in the area of language.

I mean there are all sorts of works of Irish literature which are about, you know, somebody starting, unable to speak, and finishing in a condition of great eloquence.  In James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man on the first page, Baby Stephen is lisping, he’s mispronouncing words, he cannot speak, but that novel, a sort of central classical Irish novel, ends with Stephen about whom the story was being told, taking over the story and telling it himself in his own eloquent way.  Similarly, in a simple play like J. M. Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, the hero when we first meet him, is a stuttering lout in a ditch, he can’t speak and he comes out of the ditch into the pub, and he starts telling a story which is partly a lie and partly of course the truth.  And he becomes more and more eloquent.  The more eloquent he becomes the more he discovers he has an identity, he is a person.

There are various other works of Irish literature that are entranced by that notion that you discover your identity through the mastery of language, but behind that there is the other story, which says to you no-one ever became masterly at something who has not first known incompetence in it.  And that’s especially true for the Irish people in relation to the English language.  The comic way, in which they have often been represented speaking their English language, becomes stereotyped, which largely belongs to the 19th. Century where Irish became in effect, two languages, and where they were very often forcing the syntax of the Irish language into English words, and of course sounding very quaint and strange to English ears.  Irish writers became self-conscious, virtuoso players of the English language, a kind of mastery that comes from recognition of previous incompetence.

So there’s a very deep relation between dumbness, aphasia and eloquence, and something that is not just true in Irish literature, though it’s most definitely true in various other aspects of Irish life, that relationship between astonishing achievement and loss and gain.  In some ways in this novel, the child learns slowly that by the time he achieves eloquence, learns the whole truth, the aphasia, the dumbness, the inner articulacy that characterised both his father and his mother, he has passed from their world in to that world.  But it’s a very expensive journey that he’s undertaking, and it’s dubious whether that form of eloquence is something that one should aspire to.  But whether he wants to aspire to it or not, he’s going to get it, it’s inescapable.

That mix of the folkloric, the legendary, the old Irish language and the connection between the English language, the new legislation, education, modernity; the relationship between the two is one that is central to the whole way in which the novel produces itself.  It’s a work which is about modernity and it’s about, dare I use the weary old word, tradition and a relationship between them, and the painful emergence from a traditional society into the modern era.

Northern Ireland: the future

I can’t say I feel optimistic about the future of Northern Ireland.  There isn’t much reason to be optimistic right now in early 1997.  I felt perhaps foolishly optimistic for the eighteen months of the ceasefire.  We’ve had twenty-eight years of what Brigadier Kitson calls ‘low intensity warfare’ in Northern Ireland.  There have been some profound changes, but not one of those changes actually seems to have the potential to reveal a way of solving or even shelving the problem, or the problems that beset the place.  I suppose if I have optimism it’s – and this may seem strangely ill-founded to many people – but I  think the solution is actually going to come from the paramilitaries.

It has already begun to emerge, I must say to my own surprise, from the Protestant paramilitaries.  Very slowly but visibly, they are detaching themselves, disengaging themselves from the traditional forms of unionism.  This is not to say that they’re not unionist, they are, but they’re unionist in a different way.   And I think equally in the Nationalist Republican side, the IRA, especially if Gerry Adams survives as leader of Sinn Fein, some kind of accommodation can be found between the IRA and UVF.

But, it’s a very frail hope, and of course it could be extinguished by the next bomb, could be extinguished by another assassination campaign beginning.  In the very worst year, 1972, starting with Bloody Sunday, finishing with what, 640 people assassinated something like that in that year, I remember the feeling that we were trapped in such a cul-de-sac that the violence would simply go on reproducing itself endlessly and that there was simply no escape route.  I don’t think it would ever have quite that feeling of entrapment again but it could.  The possibility of there being a solution, at the moment is quite remote, but on the other hand somewhere in me I have confidence that there will be a solution, maybe by the year 2020 when we all have 2020 vision.



– This interview was taken from The English & Media Magazine, No. 36, Summer 1997.

My favourite Novel of all Time… Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane





*Page references are from the Vintage, 1997 edition

This has to be one of my favourite novels of all time – definitely the best book never to win The Booker!  There you go – I’ve put my cards on the table for all to see.  This incredibly well-crafted novel is set in Derry over a 16-year period from 1945 to 1961, the book presents a child’s view of the tensions in the city during that time.  Throughout the book we are reminded of the conflict that surrounds the narrator.

An example of the narrator’s direct involvement is shown in the story of the St. Patrick’s Day riot where the police baton-charged a march and were enticed down a long street where half a barrel of oil was poured onto the street as they approached.  Two police cars skidded sharply under a hail of stones and one burst into flames.  Here the writer emphasises the hazards and dangers of the time and shows the children’s thrill at getting the better of the police.

The reader learns to piece the story together of a tense historical period, where secrets about past deeds are buried and rarely, if ever, revealed even to those who are closest to those who participated in them.  Few direct references are made to the actual events of the time, with the exception of the 12th of July celebrations, commemorating the triumph of the Protestant armies at the Battle of the Boyne; the Apprentice Boys march on the 12th of August, celebrating the liberation of the city of Derry from a besieging Catholic army in 1689; and the 18th of December, the burning of Lundy’s effigy.  These are briefly mentioned and used as landmarks to guide the structure of the book.  Deane also refers to the church festivities on the 15th of August which were turned into a political event as time went on.  With knowledge of these events, many aspects of the boy’s story are more meaningful to the reader who can then understand the significance of many apparently general comments.

The unnamed narrator is a young boy, who describes the years of his growing up in Derry in the 1940s and ‘50s.  He is the third oldest of seven children in a working-class Catholic family.  The story traces the family’s complicated history which reveals many secrets surrounding the mysterious disappearance of Eddie, his father’s brother. Eddie had been accused of being a police informer and had been unable to prove his innocence.  He was executed by the IRA in a remote farmhouse under the orders of the narrator’s maternal grandfather.  However, it emerged later that the real informer had been McIlhenny, his aunt Kate’s husband, and therefore Eddie had been killed in error.

The boy’s mother knew this, and when she found out she warned McIlhenny in time for him to escape to America.  She did this because she had had a relationship with him in the past before he married her sister.  Her husband did not know this.  He was unaware that his brother had not been an informer and dies at the end of the novel, grieving for the trouble he thought his brother had brought upon the family.

The boy’s mother has had to endure her husband’s suffering, unable to tell him the awful truth.  When she learns that it was her own father who organised Eddie’s execution, she cannot cope with what she knows.  She becomes emotionally crippled with guilt and helplessness and begins to disintegrate emotionally and psychologically.  Now only the boy knows the full story and like his mother he is bound to silence.  He uncovers the truth bit by bit but it is a large burden of knowledge for a young boy to carry.


The Theme of Secrecy:  A well-known saying in the North of Ireland is, ‘Whatever you say, say nothing’.  This saying reflects the troubled times in the North.  Seamus Heaney used the phrase as the title and the theme of one of his most impressive poems on the Northern Troubles which raged from 1969 until 1998.

There is a natural reserve built in to any discussion about politics or about happenings where there may be conflict.  This is very much the case in many novels written about the Northern situation, and Deane’s novel is no exception.  There is very little direct discussion about what has happened to Eddie.   Much of the information comes to the boy in a vague, roundabout way and it takes the boy’s perceptive abilities to link the threads together.

Secrets abound in the novel, and as the human mind is naturally curious, the boy is determined to find out what is obviously being hidden from him.  The boy knows that his grandfather is a possible source of information, especially now that his health is deteriorating and he appears close to death.  The boy is often sent in to sit with his grandfather and eventually, he tells him that Eddie was executed as an informer, but that there was more to it,  ‘He shut his eyes and he told me, he told me.  He, Grandfather, had ordered the execution.  But he was wrong.  Eddie had been set up.  He had not been an informer at all’ (p. 126).

Meanwhile, unaware that the boy already knows something, it takes quite some time before the boy’s father can bring himself to tell his sons the truth, as he understands it, about his own brother.  In a quiet country church, he finally managed to do it.  ‘Eddie was never killed in that shoot-out,’ he said suddenly and looked away from us immediately … ‘No, he wasn’t killed in the distillery.  He was an informer.  His own people killed him.’  Now he had said it all, and a great shame and sorrow was weighing his head down towards the front of the pew’ (p. 133).

To be an informer was one of the worst possible crimes that any person could commit – to inform on your own people for a few pounds was unforgivable.   Families who had informers in their ranks could never be trusted and life could be and was often made a misery for anyone related to an informer.

‘He was talking all the time, forcing it out of himself, and Liam’s face was white as a star beside him.  Informer.  Betrayed his companions.  Why he did it could not be known.  His brother.  Thank God his parents were not alive to see it.  It was so stale a secret, like a gust of bad breath, and the way the three of us were crouched together in the middle pew of the church, like conspirators, with the sun beginning to warble again, it was like a false relief, as though the church were a machine that had stopped throbbing to let the world come in again around its becalmed silence’  (p. 134).

The boy’s mother is also very protective of the awful secrets that she has to carry and she is determined not to reveal them to any other person.  Again, secrecy is vital, as the revelation of what she has done would do irreparable damage to her husband and to her sister.  The boy can see this worry in her because he shares some, but not all of what she knows.

‘We were pierced together by the same shaft.  But she didn’t know that.  Nor was I going to say anything unless she did.  And even then, when it had all been told, I had the sense of something being held back, something more than she knew, something Grandfather had cut out’ (p. 127).

It is this desperate clinging onto awful secrets which fuels the whole novel.  As the plot unfolds, the enormity of the secrets is impressed upon the reader.  The action of the novel escalates and this keeps the reader turning the pages to find out if a secret will be told.  Feelings, which accompany secrecy, intensify as the story goes on.  Fear, intense shame, guilt and helplessness are all present.

The Theme of Family Relationships:  One of the main themes of this book is the topic of family relationships, which are under strain partly due to the times they live in.  The boy’s relationship with each parent changes as the story unfolds.  He rarely asks questions yet he is given information from various sources.  By piecing the fragments together he realises that neither parent knows exactly what happened, yet he is prevented from interfering and informing them by an awareness of the pain that this would cause them.

Each piece of the jigsaw puzzle he finds causes further alterations in the boy’s relationship with both parents.  Sometimes one parent will tell him a little, giving him the impression that they trust him.  At other times, he learns something from outside the family, which draws him away and makes him more reserved with them.  It is only when his grandfather tells him on his deathbed that he had ordered Eddie’s execution and that Eddie had been set up, that things begin to change radically for the boy, ‘I left him and went straight home, where I could never talk to my father or my mother properly again’ (p. 126).

The boy knows that his mother is struggling to live with the knowledge that her husband is unaware that his innocent brother was murdered under her father’s instructions as punishment for a crime that he had not committed.  She has also had a relationship with McIlhenny, her sister’s husband, and her husband is unaware of this too.  McIlhenny was, in fact, the informer who had framed Eddie, her husband’s brother, and she was the one who had alerted him before he escaped to Chicago.  As a result of her actions she is tortured by a mixture of guilt and grief.

It does not help when she realises that her son knows the truth.  This heightens the strain between mother and son.  Instead of sharing the burden, they become isolated from and wary of each other.  The father cannot understand why their relationship has suddenly deteriorated.  Near the end of the book, the boy’s mother finds the strain of keeping this secret too much for her, and she begins to disintegrate emotionally.  Even though he did his best to reassure her that he would never say anything, she wished he were not there,  ‘Why don’t you go away?’ she asked me.  ‘Then maybe I could look after your father properly for once, without your eyes on me’ (p. 224).

Father and son do not have a particularly close relationship: there are many unspoken barriers between them.  His father is bitterly ashamed of having an informer in the family and rarely speaks about his brother Eddie.  A few brief glimpses into the past show that as children, the boy’s father and Eddie had been close friends, which made the blow even harder when Eddie was accused of betraying the family.  At one point, he is unable to prevent himself from hitting his son when he speaks disrespectfully of Eddie.  He was angry with his son for antagonising the police and challenging him.

‘Was there something amiss with me?  No, I told him, there’s something amiss with the family.  The police were on top of us long before I was born.  If he wanted to blame someone, let him blame Eddie, not me.  He hit me so fast, I saw nothing.  My shoulder felt hot and broken.  I got up, hating him, although I could feel the tears coming as the pain increased through the numbness’ (p. 102).

Another piece of the family history which adds further strain to family relationships, is the fact that his mother’s father killed a policeman in his youth in retaliation for a close friend’s death.  Unshakable alibis enabled him to escape the punishment.  This is something that the family must live with and they are constantly reminded of it in subtle and not so subtle ways whenever they come into contact with the police.  One incident is the repeated persecution of the boy’s mother by Sergeant Burke when the children are at school.  As a family living with the guilt of murders committed or organised by other members, they have difficulty maintaining steady or open relationships due to the burden of secrecy imposed on them.  Like Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, who had blood on their hands and troubled consciences, this family, even though the main members concerned did not actually commit the crime, are tainted by it and must live with the consequences.

Deane depicts the family in a very credible manner.  The absence of significant conversation and the conveying of information through a child’s thoughts and reflections show all too clearly how the family structure is being worn down.  Yet, at the same time, the family shows a resilience and a determination to keep going despite all that has happened and is happening, perhaps because of some inner strength, never acknowledged.

The Theme of Growing Up:  This novel is narrated in the form of an autobiography and it shows a progressive change in the boy’s outlook on life from the time he discovers what has happened to his family in the past.

Here the main character’s development is rather a painful one as the boy begins to realise the extent of the tragic happenings in his family and he has to try and accept that they are irredeemable.  His uncle cannot be resurrected and his grandfather has always had two murders on his conscience.  His mother has been betrayed in love and his father believes he has been betrayed by his own brother.

All of the above have a significant impact on the boy.  As an observer from the outside, the boy watches his parents and because he cannot do anything to heal their wounds he simply retreats into himself.  ‘But knowing what I did separated me from them both.’  For much of the time he is alone, alienated by what he knows and unable to confide in anyone, least of all in a family member.  Isolation from those around him is a noticeable part of his growing up (as it is in our other texts).  At no point does he relate an in-depth conversation with any member of his family about his family.  He is very much on his own with his thoughts and with his efforts to link up the things he knows by using his own initiative.

He is an avid reader and often reads late into the night, finding solace in books,

‘I’d switch off the light, get back in bed, and lie there, the book still open, re-imagining all that I had read, the various ways the plot might unravel, the novel opening into endless possibilities in the dark’ (p. 20).

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.

As he grows up, he becomes more and more distant from his parents because this is the only way with which he could cope with what he knows,

‘I went away to university in Belfast, glad to have so mishandled everything that I had created a distance between my parents and myself that had become my only way of loving them’ (p. 22).

In a sense, this attempt was successful as ten years on, much of what had once been clear in his mind had become more vague.  The years passed and the memories began to become so confused and muddled, that he wondered at times if he had dreamt it all.

The novel ends in 1971 with the musings of a young adult who is home again for his father’s funeral.  It is a desperately sad ending as the family’s grief is for more than just the loss of a member; the father dies still unaware of the dreadful truth.  The chief mourners, his wife and son, have a lot to lament.  It is left to the reader to surmise how the young man is now feeling; relief that his father dies without knowing that his brother had died in error, anger that he could never be told, or guilt that he knew all along?  Or is it just an intense, heartbreaking sadness?  Deane deliberately ends the story with a sparse use of language. What is left unsaid speaks volumes, we are left as Seamus Heaney says in “Harvest Bow”, ‘gleaning the unsaid off the palpable’.   Isn’t this always the case?


Type: Social Realism/Autobiography/Memoir:  In Reading in the Dark, fiction and fact, myth and history combine to create a hybrid between two modes of writing, autobiography and fiction.  If the reader did not know it was a novel, he or she might be forgiven for assuming that it was purely autobiographical.  For the narrator, there are two worlds: the city of Derry and its haunting secrets of the past and the wealth of legends that haunt his childhood.  Both worlds, real and unreal, are cleverly intertwined in the novel, which gives strength to the impact of the book.

In some respects, it also takes the form of a detective novel, if the suspense of finding out the truth about the real murderer and the real informer are taken into consideration.  However, it would be insulting to the author to dismiss it as such, because it contains far more than that.  Much of what happens to the family is a glimpse into the fabric of life in Northern Ireland at the time, and it is based on real happenings.  It is therefore socially realistic.  It is also a novel with a tragic ending, yet it does not completely fit the general definition of tragedy.

Essentially then, Reading in the Dark combines two genres, a socially realistic novel and tragic fiction, with a hint of a detective novel and political thriller thrown in for good measure!

The Structure of the Novel:  The book is written as a first person narrative.  A complex situation is presented from a young boy’s point of view and he comments on each happening ass it occurs.  The plot is clearly drawn and extremely well ordered.  It is written chronologically and meticulously dated.  This is important as part of the plot hangs on the accuracy of dates when the boy is trying to figure out who knows what and when.  This also emphasises the clarity of the boy’s memories.  Each chapter is sub-divided into different sections, which are short and condensed, and each section has its own significant link with the overall plot of the novel.

While the novel takes us through a 16-year period from 1945 to 1961, it does refer back to a period twenty years earlier to when Eddie disappeared in 1922 after the attack on the distillery, to 1926 when McIlhenny left for Chicago, to when his parents first met in 1930 and to when they got married in 1935.  This period is mentioned a number of times to remind the reader that this was a turbulent time, both for the family and for the province.  With this technique, Deane controls the plot so that the reader’s curiosity is aroused in the first few pages and maintained throughout.  Answers are given bit by bit, moving from the present to the past and back again.  The plot twists and turns as the true story gradually emerges.  The reader is challenged to work out what is happening each time that the boy gathers a new piece of information.

Old stories and fables are included at strategic points, which adds to the fictional aspect of the novel.  The child finds it hard to know what to believe as the legends of the past spill over into reality.  It becomes difficult to distinguish between truths and untruths as many of the family secrets are hazy and vague and take on the ghostly qualities of legends.  The chapter, Field of the Disappeared, illustrates this perfectly.  The boy is unsure whether the old tale is true or not, but it is here that Eddie is linked up with a ghostly legend.

Ghosts haunt the story from the very first page.  The boy’s mother is transfixed in the stairway watching a ghost she believes to be inhabiting the family’s house.  Her conscience torments her and memories of her past come back to haunt her.  Ghostly spirits are woven through the stories which the boy hears from adults and the ghostly memories of dead family members echo through the pages.  Yet for the narrator at the end of the novel, things are not as vague as they seem,

‘Hauntings are, in their way, very specific.  Everything has to be exact, even the vaguenesses.  My family’s history was like that too.  It came to me in bits, from people who rarely recognised all they had told’ (p. 225).

In the chapter,  All of It? (p. 182) everything finally comes to light (see p. 187), and the boy assembles all that he knows.  The enormity of what he has to carry becomes evident to the reader.  This chapter is appropriately placed close to the end of the novel, which unifies its structure.

The Style of the Novel:  Deane uses a beautifully poetic style of writing to create a tightly written story.  His writing is primarily clear and direct.  The opening lines of the novel illustrate this:

‘On the stairs there was a clear plain silence.  It was a short staircase, fourteen steps in all, covered in lino from which the original pattern had been polished away to the point where it had the look of a faint memory’ (p. 5).

The writing can be very factual and distant at the most emotional times, for example in the Pistol chapter when he is severely beaten.  ‘So they beat us too, Liam and me, across the table from him.  I remember the sweat and rage on his face as he looked’ (p. 28).  The description of the beating is related in a very matter of fact way.  In Roses the boy rips up the back garden coldly, methodically, almost in a trance or in a frenzy.  The incident is again presented in a factual way with emotions well disguised or hidden.  Yet this is what makes it all the more effective,

‘But as the nausea and dread died in me and I saw the broken roses hanging down in the choking dust, I gave up and stood there in a trance, hearing the front door open and my mother’s voice and the children babbling and running’ (p. 105).

Often a memorable image will follow on from what is presented in a factual manner,

‘Walking on that concreted patch where the bushes had been was like walking on hot ground below which voices and roses were burning, burning’ (p. 108).

Deane also generates suspense extremely well at intervals.  There is a great sense of excitement here:

‘The police and B Specials raced down after us, under a hail of stones thrown at the cars and the jeeps they rode in or ran alongside.  Advertising hoardings at the side of the street took the first volley of our missiles as the two leading cars hit the oil.  A giant paper Coca-Cola bottle was punctured, along with the raised chin of a clean-shaven Gilette model.  The cars swung and hurtled into the side walls, shredding stones from them like flakes of straw.  The oil glittered in the sudsy swathe of the tyres, and one car lit up in a blue circle of flames as the police ran from it.  The whole street seemed to be bent sideways, tilted by the blazing hoardings into the old Gaelic football ground’ (p. 36).

This notion of the street bending sideways extends the chaotic picture even further.

Some striking images are used to convey conflict to the reader:

‘It was a city of bonfires …………….. The night sky reddened around the rising furls of black tyre-smoke that exploded every so often in high soprano bursts of paraffined flame.  The acrid odour would gradually give way to the more fragrant aroma of soft-burning trees that drifted across the little houses in their serried slopes, gravelled streets falling down from the asphalted Lone Moor Road that for us marked the limit between the city proper and the beginning of the countryside that spread out into Donegal four miles away’ (p. 33).

This is a beautiful piece of sensual writing: the sounds, sights and smells reach across to the reader.

Another memorable image in which Derry is brought vividly to life in this way is, ‘the shadows on the gable wall shrivelled as the fires burnt low to their red intestines’ (p.  34) and another example, ‘The dismembered streets lay strewn all around the ruined distillery where Uncle Eddie had fought, aching with a long, dolorous absence’ (p. 34).

There are many haunting descriptions in the book.  Katie’s story especially is an excellent example of this:

‘The greenish light came into  the room in mid-air and spread all over it, and with that came this whispering of voices, a man’s and a woman’s, whispering, whispering, furious, almost as if they were spitting in anger, except that the voices were dry, whipped up like swirlings of dust in a wind’ (p. 69).

In many ways, it is this haunting quality of the book which remains in the reader’s mind long after the book has been put down.  (Warning: Katie’s Story should not be read late at night!  Be warned!).

Deane also has an accurate way of describing people.  Crazy Joe, the local crackpot, ‘had a sculpted, clean appearance.  His medallion face fronted his large head like a mask, and the head itself, perched on his tiny body, swung and vibrated all the time like an insect’s’ (p. 81).

There is little use of direct speech in the novel, and when it is used, it is as a vehicle for important parts of the story, for example when the boy’s father tells him what he believes really happened to Eddie.  It is well used when Katie is telling the children a story and commenting on it, as this makes it more immediate.  Deane is particularly economical in his use of dialogue, which serves to emphasise Northern reticence about sensitive issues – Remember, ‘Whatever you say, say nothing’.


This novel is essentially a child’s account of growing up in a world of conflict.  In Derry during ‘the Troubles’, your religion, your family history in ‘The Troubles’ and your own behaviour all ‘labelled’ you.  Religion is rarely mentioned directly but this does not mean that it was unimportant.  We know that it was a huge cultural factor at the time.  Often what is left unsaid is more powerful than what is said, as much may be implied.  In the chapter Fire it is pointed out that Protestants had more excuses to celebrate than Catholics – this is only one of a few direct reference to Protestants in the book.  Priests make a brief appearance, for example Fr. O’Neill, when he marched the boy down to the local police station to ‘apologise’ for throwing a stone at a police car.  There are other references to priests, such as Fr. Nugent, the Spiritual Director who knows all about the facts of life, Fr. Gildea, the Maths teacher and Fr. Moran who comes to hear his grandfather’s confession before he dies.

Family history, however, was a significant factor in the way in which people were treated in the community.  People were judged by their connections.  This family had a cousin in gaol because of connections in the IRA, an uncle who was ‘known’ to be an informer and a grandfather who managed to escape punishment for murdering a policeman.  Therefore they were a ‘marked’ family and the boy was often treated more harshly because of this ‘history’.  There were a number of incidents involving Sergeant Burke.

One clear incident was where the boy was foolish enough to throw a stone at a police car to escape being beaten by bullies.  As a result he was taken by the police and for punishment, deliberately classed as an informer, to embarrass him by public humiliation.  This was particularly difficult for him, because his father’s brother was widely believed to have been an informer, making it even harder for him to disprove the rumour.  It was a clever ruse by the police who knew what would hurt most – to disgrace the family by bringing up the sins of the past.  Sergeant Burke had a strong reason for his intense dislike and ruthless persecution of the family.  The policeman, Billy Mahon, who had been killed by the boy’s maternal grandfather, was his colleague and close friend.

The small, closely-knit community also magnified the errors people made.  The boy’s mother once told him something worth thinking about: ‘People in small places make big mistakes.  Not bigger than the mistakes of other people.  But that there is less room for big mistakes in small places.  She smiled ironically’ (p. 211).  Here she may have been referring to mistakes in love, but the saying applies to the disappearance of Eddie and McIlhenny, as well.

A strong feature of the culture of the time is people’s belief in old tales and stories.  One story is 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 boy is entranced by it.

Another story was about an enchanted field, known as ‘The Field of the Disappeared’.  Here the souls of all those from the area who had drowned or disappeared came together three or four times a year on certain holy days to cry like birds and look down on the fields where they had been born.  Any human who entered the field would suffer the same fate.  Birds did not fly over the field.  The boy’s father told his sons this story as they looked across the field.  This reminded the boy of his uncle Eddie whom he knew was on his father’s mind – perhaps his lost soul may come here too?

Katie’s story was told to him by his aunt, his mother’s sister.  A young woman was looking after two orphans, a boy and a girl, who both became possessed by some spirit and were never seen again.  The woman reported this, but she was not believed by the local priest who suspected that she was going mad and seeing things until he saw it himself.  Stories such as these show the resilient beliefs in the supernatural that were in the community, and they come up frequently in Deane’s book.


Overall, this book is a product of Derry’s troubled times and it is not unique.  It is not a completely hopeless view of life at the time, but the book has a tragic and traumatic outcome and there is little present to alleviate it.  In the last section of the book his father dies, and his mother remains haunted by what she has done.  A young English soldier was shot dead outside their door by a sniper during a street search, bringing the conflict literally onto their doorstep.  Ironically, the barricades are beginning to come down as his father’s funeral is about to go ahead.  Sadly the family barricades never did come down, and this makes it even more tragic when the actual political barricades are lifted.

Deane parallels the personal story with the political developments that are taking place in the community. The secrets and mistaken beliefs that divide a family are symbolic of the secrets and divisions that divide a whole people.  The author is not a detached observer: the gap between Seamus Deane and the narrator is so narrow as to be almost indistinguishable.  The reader is invited to sympathise with the boy in the unique position he finds himself in.  We, the readers, are expected to do our fair share of ‘reading in the dark’ also!


A Word About the Author Seamus Deane
Born in Derry, Northern Ireland, in 1940, Deane was brought up as part of a Catholic nationalist family. He attended St. Columb’s College in Derry, where he befriended fellow-student Seamus Heaney, Queen’s University Belfast (BA and MA) and Pembroke College, Cambridge University (PhD). He is a member of the Royal Irish Academy and a founding director of the Field Day Theatre Company.
seamus deane Reading in the Dark (published in 1996) was his first novel and it  won the 1996 Guardian Fiction Prize and the 1996 South Bank Show Annual Award for Literature, is a New York Times Notable Book, won the Irish Times International Fiction Prize and the Irish Literature Prize in 1997, besides being shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1996.   The novel has been translated into more than 20 languages.  Since the publication  of Reading in the Dark in 1996 Deane has garnered for himself the reputation of being one of Ireland’s pre-eminent academic scholars and literary critics and has also edited the very influential Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing.