Study Notes on ‘Shadows on Our Skin’ by Jennifer Johnston

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It is encouraging to see Shadows on Our Skin back on bookstore shelves again, thanks mainly to its inclusion on the new Junior Cycle Text List for Second and Third Years.  The novel tells the story of a young dreamer called Joe Logan who lives with his ailing, cranky, sick father and harsh, resentful mother in a Northern Ireland beset by ‘The Troubles’. He has a gentle soul, the environment does him no favours, he escapes through thinking up and writing poetry but each day he faces the reality of the world he lives in.   It was first published in 1977, eight years after British troops were deployed onto the streets of Derry and Belfast.  The purpose of this move by the British Government in Westminster was to prevent further civil strife between the increasingly polarised Protestant and Catholic communities.  While the initial reaction of the beleaguered Catholic community was a guarded welcome for the British soldiers, this over time turned to suspicion and hostility and finally hatred, especially in such ghettoised areas as The Bogside in Derry and The Falls Road and Ardoyne areas in Belfast.  Many Catholics came to regard the British as an army of occupation, much as Joe Logan’s father does in Shadows on Our Skin. For example, on Bloody Sunday, 30 January 1972, in the Bogside area of Derry, British soldiers shot 28 unarmed civilians during a peaceful protest march against internment. Fourteen people died: thirteen were killed outright, while the death of another man four months later was attributed to his injuries.  Many of the victims were shot while fleeing from the soldiers and some were shot while trying to help the wounded.  Other protesters were injured by rubber bullets or batons, and two were run down by army vehicles.   The march had been organised by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA).  The soldiers involved in this infamous incident were members of the  Parachute Regiment.  The inevitable result of incidents such as this was that increasing numbers of young men joined the newly formed Provisional IRA.

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Battle of the Bogside

‘Over and over again, the same stories’

The background to Shadows on Our Skin, therefore, is the plight of these poor Catholics living in deprivation in mean streets, their lives constantly disrupted by street fighting, ambushes and British army raids on their homes, leading to the destruction of their property and the arrest and internment of many fathers and sons.  This struggle between the authorities and a large section of the Catholic population is mirrored in the tensions within the Logan home.  Two distinct points of view on the IRA campaign are represented by Joe’s father and mother.  The father’s background, reflected in his political outlook, helps to explain why the struggle against the British occupation of part of Ireland persists from generation to generation.  He has, for years, filled his son Brendan’s head with tales of his own achievements as an Irish freedom-fighter during the War of Independence in the early 1920’s.  We are never quite sure whether these heroic stories are to be believed; his wife, for one, has her doubts.  Whatever the truth about the days in which, as Mrs. Logan sarcastically remarks, he ‘ran the Movement’, he creates a persona for himself by means of which he impresses and indoctrinates Brendan.  Since childhood, Brendan has been close to his father, feeding off his romanticised accounts of the part he has played in the downfall of the British power in Ireland, ‘listening to the stories, over and over again the same stories, of the glamorous days, the fairy tales’.

What matters is not whether these stories are true, but the effect they have on Brendan’s imagination, outlook and actions.  He can repeat the names of the heroes of the War of Independence, the Civil War and the new IRA as one might repeat a litany of saints: Liam Lynch, Ernie O’Malley, Liam Mellows, Sean Russell.  He has been taught that these men were uniquely men of principle as well as heroic men of action.  Even Joe, young as he is, has been affected by the mythology of republican nationalism.  The world his father imaginatively inhabits is peopled with heroes, ‘with patrols and flying columns and sad songs that used to drift down to Joe below, songs about death and traitors and freedom and more heroes’.  Much of his father’s patriotism is a matter of bar-room rhetoric, of purely negative emotions such as hatred for the British and contempt for ‘the Free state’ authorities for shirking their ‘legitimate responsibilities’.  He is in total sympathy with the military campaign of the new IRA.  He believes that the organisation could do with the expertise of people like himself.  He longs for a part in the guerrilla campaign as an armchair general (‘If they’d ask me … I have it all at my fingertips … Not only have I the experience but I’ve read the books … They need the old fellows so they do’).

A selfish father

The value of these ideas and of Mr. Logan’s present career as ‘a retired hero’ is consistently challenged in the novel by his wife.  From her point of view, he has been living far too long on the legacy of a wound acquired in the Civil War.  For her, this has meant living with his self-pity and sentimental reminiscences.  It has also meant that she must support the family while he wallows in the misery of his decaying health, tears trembling in his voice as he remembers the days when he was in his prime.  Now his life is divided between his sick-bed, the dinner-table and the pub, and dominated by wasteful, futile regrets (‘I should have died then, instead of being mutilated, body and soul.  Aye, soul too.  I have wasted away my life since’).  Apart from having to endure this ever-present sickness of body and soul, the yearlong tears which have left their grey tracks on his cheeks, Mrs. Logan must live with a man whose outlook on issues of life and death differs fundamentally from hers.  He is the great life-denying force in the novel, not only in regard to himself but in regard to others as well.  He is sustained by memories, drink, and hatred of Britain, none of which find a sympathetic echo in his wife’s heart.

Mr. Logan’s visual appearance suggests a sinister significance: ‘He was like some evil old demon propped up there in his grey pyjamas with an old jersey pulled over the top of them.  His eyes were a dirty grey like his pyjamas.’  His response to the killing of two British soldiers provokes a bitter argument with his wife, in which the play of contrasting ideas on violence which dominates the novel is given free rein.  When Joe tells him that the two soldiers are dead he smiles happily (‘That’s as good as a tonic … Cause for celebration … A nation once again … Two of the enemy are dead’).

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A worn out mother

Mrs. Logan finds this gloating over the deaths of two young soldiers offensive and absurd.  What she has to say exposes the poverty of her husband’s outlook on the political situation.  Their arguments show how defiantly he lives in a world of abstractions, most of them quite meaningless and alien to her practical mind.  His hackneyed celebration of freedom gives her an opening to express the point of view of all those, particularly women and children, who suffer on behalf of political causes.  She turns his own terminology of freedom back on him.  She wonders, for example, if ‘liberated’ southern Ireland enjoys any more freedom than the occupied North.  To her practical mind, freedom has no real purpose unless it results in a better way of life for people.  Her comments on the Southern Republic bring some of the major issues raised in the novel into sharp focus:

Is there a job for every man?  And a home for everyone?  Have all the children got shoes on their feet?  Are there women down there scrubbing floors to keep the home together because stupid, useless olds men are sitting round gassing about freedom?  Singing their songs about heroes?

A dominated brother

This suggests that Mr. Logan’s notions about Irish freedom reflect an absolute lack of concern for practical urgent realities.  There is, of course, more to them than this, because of their profound influence on Brendan.  The son precisely echoes and mirrors his father’s reactions to the deaths of the British soldiers. ‘Not too bad … a couple of soldiers killed’ is how Brendan responds when Kathleen Doherty asks him if anybody has been hurt.  The depth of his father’s influence is further suggested in conversation with his mother.  She believes that the young men of the area who have been arrested for IRA involvement deserve their fate.  He sees them as leaders in the struggle for a better life for people like his mother, and argues, as his father does, that nobody will have a decent life until after the British have been dislodged.  He regards those who oppose the aims and methods of the IRA as traitors to their class and to their religion, and therefore finds the killing of British soldiers can be easily justified.  Her condemnation of this idea and of her husband’s patriotic outbursts is absolute. ‘Does it not enter your head,’ she asks Brendan, ‘that there’s a rare difference between sitting around and listening to a bunch of old men telling their hero stories and what is happening now?’  Words, she knows, can be as deadly in their effect as bullets.  She can even defend the actions of the British soldiers in pillaging the Logan home by fixing the blame on her husband and son: ‘They’re no worse than the next man.  They only do what they do because of people like you and your father.’

Joe, a victim of his environment

Shadows on Our Skin is a novel of blighted childhood.  The adult world casts an ugly shadow on Joe’s youth.  He is the innocent victim of a hopelessly inept, irresponsible father and a selfish brother.  His school life is as unhappy as his home life.  His one pleasant human relationship is ruined by his brother’s interference.  The most remarkable thing about Joe is his ability to endure all the cruelties that life can heap on his head and still remain buoyant for so much of the time.  Jennifer Johnston renders the sordid atmosphere of the Logan home and its effect on Joe with disturbing realism.  Images of decay, filth, and tedium pervade the novel.  Down-to-earth details of the domestic scene can suggest the silent, frightening desperation of so many lives like Joe Logan’s: ‘they were eating their Sunday dinner, Mass behind them, an endless Sunday afternoon in front of them …’  the atmosphere of sickness is also ever-present in the Logan household.  His father’s sick spells are liable to last for weeks: ‘Ill, shaking all the time and giving off a terrifying smell of illness that made Joe want to keep away from him.’  The father’s predicament has made him so repulsive that Joe is afraid to touch him: ‘He was always afraid that his fingers would sink through the soft, mouldering skin.’

All of this leaves Joe with a diminished capacity for optimism.  Everywhere around him there is evidence of human despair and unhappiness.  Apart from his father, who has been bemoaning his own fate for years, those closest to him often seem close to tears, particularly his mother.  ‘He was’, we are told, ‘frightened by tears, not by children’s tears of rage or pain, nor his father’s blubberings of self-pity, but adult tears like hers and Kathleen’s which made him feel that the world might crack open suddenly.’  Towards the end of the novel, we are given a pitiful glimpse of the effect of his morbid experience on his vision of the world.  In his natural resentment of his brother’s interference in his personal life, Joe instinctively destroys Brendan’s relationship with Kathleen by revealing the identity and occupation of her fiancé Fred Burgess.  Having performed his act of what he calls ‘deliberate destruction’, Joe runs away for a while, speculating on the kind of world that might lie beyond the sea.  The real world beyond the confines of Derry may not, he decides, be any different from the world he knows.  His account of the world of his own experience shows that nothing he has so far learned about human relationships gives him cause for hope.  As far as he can judge, people are helpless victims of their mutual cruelties, doomed to have their hopes dashed:

Perhaps everywhere you went people were lost, searching with desperation for something they would never find, mutilating themselves and each other in their desperation.  There was no safety.

Joe is puzzled by some of the unhappiness he finds in the lives of others, such as Kathleen Doherty, for example.  She is telling him about Fred Burgess, the British soldier she intends to marry when he notices how unhappy she is.  She eventually confesses that her life is without purpose and she is extremely unhappy with her lot.  Even the prospect of marriage to Fred fails to give purpose or meaning to her daily activities.  She is unable to find happiness in what she calls ‘the birth, marriage, death routine’.  Joe can understand why he himself might have cause for unhappiness but what he finds hard to understand is that ‘safe’ people like Kathleen could or should be unhappy with their life.  This he finds unfair.  He thinks it unacceptable that life should ‘gnaw at her in this way’.  Kathleen’s unhappiness induces a ‘clotted sadness’ in his head.

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A world of grief

Joe views the world as a place where people mutilate themselves and each other and where nobody is really secure from grief.  The endless domestic conflicts between his parents have helped to condition his responses to the unhappiness of most human relationships.  His mother’s predicament is a further lesson in the horrors of home life for so many people of her social class.  The burdens of family life have almost crushed her spirit.  We learn that her voice is ‘tired to death’, and that she cries quietly.  Her face is ‘full of pain at having to move into yet another week’.  She is not, however, the burnt-out wreck of humanity that her husband is.  She responds with animation to every domestic challenge, repairs the ruins of the house after the British soldiers have wrecked it, devotes herself untiringly to the basic needs of her family, does all she can to further Joe’s moral education, and keeps a home going heroically against the odds.  Her husband does little to deserve it, but her love for him shines through in subtle ways.  After they have quarrelled bitterly over politics, he leaves her in tears with Joe for company:

‘There’s no sign of your Daddy.’

‘No.’

‘He must have someone to have a drink with.’

‘Yes.’

‘He’d have been home otherwise.’

‘Yes’

Despite his total inadequacy as a husband, she can still look forward to his return and worry about his late homecoming.

Three themes in the novel

Three interwoven themes in Shadows on Our Skin are the past, the family and betrayal.  (These same themes are also dealt with powerfully in Seamus Deane’s brilliant novel Reading in the Dark also about a young boy’s experience of ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland).  The legacy of the past haunts the Logan family and has a profound effect on the present outlook and activity of its members.  Betrayal by family members and close friends of each other’s interests is a disturbing feature of the novel. Indeed, Jennifer Johnston herself has written:

The way I see the world, we are constantly at risk from the people we love most.  They are, after all, the only people who can do us serious damage, a damage that lasts forever.  I’m a very optimistic person, but I can see this happening.

Mr. Logan is the vehicle through which the past constantly intrudes into the lives of his wife and two sons.  He himself lives much more in the past than in the present and keeps an idealised version of his own past before the minds of all who will listen to him.   The continuity between past and present which he enforces is based on an ongoing hatred of the ancient crimes of the British enemy against the long-suffering Irish people.  He sees to it that his eldest son remains conscious of the grievances of the past and all its bitter memories.  His emphasis on past wrongs means that his eldest son sometimes approaches the British-dominated world around him in a spirit of revolt.  Love or forgiveness of enemies can have no place in this scheme of things: ‘Look around.  Hate is a better word.  I can understand that.’  Mr. Logan’s insistence on living in a mythical past in which he was a wounded hero disables him from living in the present in any useful sense and from making any positive contribution to the welfare of his family.  Indeed, he invokes the past to poison the atmosphere of the present, to hand on his peculiar version of old events to the next generation.

The novel offers some small (prophetic?)  glimmer of hope that the terrible dominance of the past may eventually be broken.  Brendan has been indoctrinated by his father’s view of the past, but his commitment to its influence is far from absolute.  Kathleen Doherty recognises this.  Far from being totally committed to the legacy his father seeks to pass on to him, Brendan is, as Kathleen observes, ‘in a state of great confusion’, with ‘a lot of wrong ideas pushing the right ideas rather hard’.  Towards the end, the ‘right’ ideas, the rejection of the violent heritage represented by Mr. Logan, achieve the upper hand, at least temporarily.  Brendan tells Joe that he always sees himself carrying on the struggle against the British where his father left off.  When the IRA people gave him a gun, this ended his dream of violent activity: ‘It was the gun finished me off.  I wouldn’t be any use to them.’

A sense of betrayal haunts the novel.  Mr. Logan betrays the interests of his wife and children by refusing to take a constructive interest in anything relating to their welfare.  His life is a betrayal of decent standards, an outpouring of totally negative and destructive emotions.  Joe practises his own understandable but very deadly form of betrayal.  When Brendan infringes on his pleasant relationship with Kathleen, Joe’s jealousy and hatred begin to dominate his life.  Kathleen has indicated to Joe her intention of marrying a British soldier, Fred Burgess, but he has kept the identity of this man a secret from Brendan.  Joe has promised Kathleen that he will tell his brother nothing about Fred.  When Brendan confides in him that he may marry Kathleen, he betrays Kathleen’s secret, taunts Brendan to fury with revelations which shock him, telling him that his rival is ‘a British soldier.  She wears his ring, you know.  And she tells him everything.’  It is this final betrayal which leads to frightening consequences for Kathleen and darkens the close of the novel.

This series of events split Joe’s world apart, and he is left to process the consequences of the things he has done and the choices he has made.  Shadows on Our Skin is a book that is quick and enjoyable to read, but also evokes sadness and seriousness as you absorb the life of the characters within it.  It’s a fairly low-key story, and not much seems to happen plot-wise, but there is something about Shadows on our Skin which is strangely compelling and incredibly moving. There’s an aching quality to the story, the type of pain which feels like a knot in the throat which cannot be swallowed away.

And of course, there’s also a bigger picture at work here, which is the political and sectarian war being waged on the streets of Derry.  Jennifer Johnson ensures that this is the ever-present backdrop to the novel but it is never the main focus for the reader.  However, its presence is felt on almost every page, whether it is reports of bombs going off, soldiers raiding Catholic homes in search of IRA weapons or boys having their sports bags searched en-route to school.

In essence, this is a coming of age story as Joe deals with some very serious situations that he faces, choices he makes and who he is becoming.  It’s a poignant and powerful book that really does reflect the awful times that children had to live in during the 1970’s in Northern Ireland.  Joe is depicted as an innocent victim of the ‘troubles’ and strife that is going on all around him.

This novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 1977 and I am not surprised. It is very well written and has stood the test of time with many readers.  I think the author did a marvellous job of portraying the characters of Joe’s father and mother.   We really are transported right to their tiny little kitchen as his mother pours the tea and his father complains about how he was once a hero but no more.

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The author, Jennifer Johnston in a garden in Goatstown, Dublin. Photographer: Dara MacDónaill

The full list of Junior Cycle English Texts for Second and Third Year can be viewed here

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Study Notes on ‘Foster’ by Claire Keegan

 

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The cover photo was given to Claire Keegan by Madelaine Greene, wife of John McGahern. It was taken at a funfair in Brussels.

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

 

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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.

She is a member of Aosdána.[3]

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After the Rain – Repairs at Ballymore Farm, Co. Wexford.

THE STORY

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.

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Out to Pasture, Ballymore, Wexford by Tony Robinson on ArtClick.ie Irish

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:

  • Growing up/Childhood
  • 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!

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Lavender Farm, Coolnagloose, Inch, Co. Wexford

CULTURAL CONTEXT

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.

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 LITERARY GENRE

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.

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Eve’s Blog N Stuff – WordPress.com

 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.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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.

 

 

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….

JM-Coetzee1

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.

 

 

 

Derek Mahon – An Overview

d mahon

Mahon’s poetry does not flinch from exposing human inadequacy, especially, but not exclusively, the pathology of the Northern Protestant people.  Oates’s heroic gesture in ‘Antarctica’, the naked aggression in ‘As It Should Be’, the narrow bigotry in ‘Ecclesiastes’, and Bruce Ismay’s self-absorption in ‘After the Titanic’ – all are testament to human shortcomings.  However, while Mahon deplores the ‘stiff rhetorical intransigence’ of his people (as Seamus Deane puts it), he also sympathises with them in their isolation and fading presence.

For Mahon poetry is essentially an artistic activity: it is more concerned with shape and form than with content or politics.  Like the great modernist poets T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats, he takes pleasure in and is consoled by the order and formality of poetry – an order that is notably absent from many of the livers he describes.  This might suggest that his poetry is removed from everyday concerns, and indeed he sometimes yearns for what he calls poetry’s ‘palace and porcelain’ – a place or state that is elegant, decorative, and decorous.

However, this desire is only one of the warring instincts within him.  Mahon has also suggested that poetry is capable of improving humankind.  He has invoked Shelley’s claim that poetry enlarges the circumference of the imagination, which is ‘the great instrument of moral good.’  Looked at in this way, poetry is an unacknowledged legislator of the world, not isolated from it.

In the opinion of one critic, Gerald Dawe, Mahon’s primary concern is to understand the imagination and find a place for it in the modern world.  Mahon himself maintains that poetry can contribute to the creation of a life that is nearer the ideal.  ‘A good poem is a paradigm (model or example) of good politics,’ he has written – ‘of people talking to each other, with honest subtlety, at a profound level.  It is a light to lighten the darkness.’

Seamus Deane remarks that Mahon’s poetry ‘expresses a longing to be free from history’; but his poems on civility and barbarity (the greatest of which is probably ‘A Disused Shed in County Wexford’) contradict that longing.  He has had good reason to yearn to be ‘through with history,’ since he belongs to a country that has violently enacted its versions of history, with deadly effect.  However, history is not his only preoccupation.  His themes also include the age-old conflict between the individual and his community.  In Mahon’s case, poetry is also especially a statement about what it means to be a poet today, distanced from, but implicated in, the historical world.  So he does not escape from history; instead it is incorporated or woven into the oasis of peace and aesthetic order that is each poem.

What are the main characteristics of his style?  He displays a combination of brevity and detail, and this is achieved with a cadenced precision.  How effective and economical a description is ‘a writhing glimmer of fish’ in ‘Day Trip to Donegal’, for example!  In addition, his elegant and playful rhymes and adroit control of assonance are impressive.  He endorses traditional poetic forms, such as the sonnet and the villanelle, and yet subverts them.  His pared-down vernacular idiom is combined with a prodigious learning, which Mahon wears lightly and which makes an oblique and understated appearance in the poems.

The voices of his poems – and they are many – are sophisticated yet possessed of a heartfelt, if weary, empathy with their subjects.  They are often still, small voices, educated but understated, learned but not pedantic, always self-aware and often self-mocking.  They are the voices of men of conscience who are implicated in the guilt of being human beings.  (Women figure only in a small, marginal way in the selection of poems by Mahon on the modern Leaving Cert course, for example.)  Their agonised intelligence is often close to despair, but they still go on.  The critic Terence Brown uses the phrase ‘terminal pathos’ to describe this distinctive note in Mahon’s poetry, which can also be found, incidentally, in the work of Samuel Beckett.  Brown is referring to that quality of poetic speech that can excite in the reader extreme pity or sorrow.

However, the poems are not all delivered in a tone of mortal sadness.  Central to Mahon’s poetry is the use of irony.  Often his meanings have a different or opposite tendency to that expressed by the words used.  When he rails against bigotry and hatred in ‘Ecclesiastes’, and against violence in ‘Rathlin’, he is severely critical, but his gentle mockery in ‘Grandfather’ is impish and mischievous.  He tempers the cruel precision of his observations with compassion, amusement, and pain.  Witty and darkly humorous, he relishes the absurd and the lyrical simultaneously, as this extract from ‘After the Titanic’ illustrates:

                                    a pandemonium of

                                    Prams, pianos, sideboards, winches,

                                    Boilers, bursting and shredded ragtime.

The settings for his poems range from the readily identifiable Portrush and Belfast to the metaphorical sites of past political failures and violence, like Kinsale and Rathlin Island, and the psychic wasteland of Antarctica.  Harshness predominates.  Surfaces are unyielding, climates are bracing.  Even cities may be empty, as in ‘Ecclesiastes’, or their citizens voluntarily withdraw into isolation, as in ‘Grandfather’.  We sense that, although the poems are set ‘in one place only’, the feelings they evoke are universal.  Always there is a consciousness of the vastness of the universe and the limitations of human struggle.  The reader is aware that, whatever the setting of a particular poem, it engages in dialogue with or provides a foil to, that desperate, barren place, Belfast, which so informs Mahon’s imagination.

Frequently places are viewed from elsewhere, from a distance that may be historical, geographical, or ironic.  The titles of the first and last books from which the poems on the Leaving Cert course are taken, Night-Crossing and Antarctica testify to his shifting ground.  Frequently too the speaker is a traveller, a tourist or a reporter, traversing difficult country.  The unyielding terrain becomes a metaphor for the existential, regional or global anxieties from which he suffers.

In certain poems there is an inkling of an ‘elsewhere’ that is nearer the ideal state than that now inhabited.  That place or state is suggested by, for example, post-historical Rathlin Island, now a bird sanctuary, or by the glimpse of Co. Donegal beyond the shores from Portrush, or by those faraway places where a thought might grow.  It is beyond reach, and the speaker is often aware of its fictional nature, as he is in ‘The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush’.

Estranged loners crowd the poems.  In works such as ‘After the Titanic’ and ‘Rathlin’ their distance from other humans, whether temporal or spatial, gives some idea of the extent of their isolation.  Sometimes, as in ‘Day Trip to Donegal’ and ‘A Disused Shed’, their alienation is suggested by his comparing them to fish or fungi.

Mahon holds a special affection for scapegoats and failures, such as the murdered dreamer in ‘As It Should Be’, or Bruce Ismay in ‘After the Titanic’, seeing in their particular brand of failure a kind of successful avoidance of the mundane.  As he writes in a 1997 poem, ‘The greatest men fail, or seem to have failed.’

A distinctively Mahon outsider is the detached observer, at one remove from reality yet part of it.  He is to be found, for instance, in ‘A Chinese Restaurant in Portrush’, ‘Day Trip to Donegal’, and ‘A Disused Shed in County Wexford’.  His role is to interpret and comment on the poem’s action, as would the chorus of a classic Greek play, or to lament man’s inhumanity, as did Old Testament prophets such as Jeremiah.  Unlike a Greek chorus, however, Mahon’s outsider is implicated in the conditions and predicaments the poems express.  His watchful presence also ignites an inquiry into the relationship between the poet and the historical world around him.

Mahon has a special gift for selecting telling images of the commonplace, material world and investing them with resonance.  Tied-up swings, Peruvian mines, burnt-out hotels, a red bandana – the images are acutely visual and activate a series of associations in our minds.  Mahon is at pains to catch the quality of light that falls on his landscapes and has a visual artist’s awareness of shape and colour.  ‘The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush’, for example, is replete with precise visual detail – such as open doors, the girl swinging her bag, the chow mein, the photograph of Hongkong, the yacht – which he then invests with significance.

Derek Mahon is one of the most important poets writing in Ireland today.  His poetry is memorable because his technical excellence, contemporary idiom and serious subject matter combine with an urbane yet passionate sensitivity.

At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime... www.likesuccess.com
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime… http://www.likesuccess.com

DEREK MAHON – A MODERN DAY ENIGMA?

‘There must be three things in combination, I suggest, before the poetry can happen: soul, song and formal necessity’ writes Mahon, and his own work most surely meets these requirements.  Mahon’s poetry has the sensibility of a thinking, feeling self, a music and a mastery of construction; ‘Grandfather’ is a sonnet, ‘Antarctica’ a villanelle and, in general, his organisation of his stanzas, his line length and rhyme are very impressive.  He is a formalist, he believes in pattern and structure and has said: ‘Look at rap – that’s the best poetry being written in America at the moment; at least it rhymes.’

Derek Mahon writes about landscape, seascape; he writes about what Edna Longley calls the ‘conflict between poetry and the ethos of Protestant Ulster’ (this is very evident in ‘Ecclesiastes’).  He is very much a poet of place (Donegal, Co. Wexford, Portrush, Rathlin, Antarctica, Kinsale), he is also a philosophical poet, a poet of ideas and a poet with a broad literary background.  The literary, philosophical aspect of his work can be seen in his poem ‘Heraclitus on Rivers’, when he writes:

 The very language in which the poem

                                      Was written, and the idea of language,

                                      All these will pass away in time.

‘For Mahon, the past is significantly present’ says Thomas Kinsella and this can be seen particularly in ‘Rathlin’ and ‘A Disused Shed in Co, Wexford’.  His sympathetic nature is evident in ‘After the Titanic’, ‘The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush’, and ‘Antarctica’.  In these three poems Mahon demonstrates his ability to enter into the lives of others.  In one he speaks in the voice of Bruce Ismay; in another he imagines what the owner of the restaurant is thinking, feeling, dreaming and in ‘Antarctica’ he recreates a scene from an Antarctic expedition where an individual makes an extraordinary choice for the benefit of others.  He is drawn to solitary, forgotten figures and in his poetry Mahon often reveals himself to be a solitary, observing figure.

Sean O’Brien points out that, ‘For the most part Mahon’s world exists outdoors’ and the, ‘wide-open spaces are, naturally enough, rather thinly populated, but even when Mahon writes about the city … it is somewhere whose population is hardly to be seen.’   Belfast, for example, in ‘Ecclesiastes’, is ‘the / dank churches, the empty streets, / the shipyard silence. The tied-up swings’.  There is also, however, a sense of beauty and celebration in Mahon’s response to the physical world, as in his description of Donegal, (‘the nearby hills were a deeper green / Than anywhere in the world’) or Kinsale (‘sky-blue slates are steaming in the sun’).

He is a very visual poet, as captured in such details as

  • ‘the grave / Grey of the sea’,
  • ‘the empty streets, / The shipyard silence, the tied-up swings’,
  • ‘a pandemonium of /Prams, pianos, sideboards, winches / Boilers bursting’,
  • ‘Between ten sleeping lorries / And an electricity generator’,
  • ‘a flutter / Of wild flowers in the lift-shaft’,
  • ‘one / By one the gulls go window shopping’,
  • ‘The whole island a sanctuary where amazed / Oneiric species whistle and chatter’,
  • ‘The tent recedes beneath its crust of rime’,
  • ‘yachts tinkling and dancing in the bay’.

‘The strongest impression made on me when I read any poem by Derek Mahon’ says Eamon Grennan, ‘is the sense that I have been spoken to; that the poem has established its presence in the world as a kind of speech … What I hear in these poems is a firm commitment to speech itself, to the act of civil communication enlivened, in this case, by poetic craft’.  The poems on our course speak to us in a voice that is calm, reflective, self-aware and never self-important.  The speaker sometimes uses ‘I’, sometimes ‘we’ or ‘us’, and all the time the reader is invited into the poem.  Mahon’s poems ask us to reflect on a range of themes:

  • the dispossessed and neglected in ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’,
  • loneliness and longing in ‘The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush’,
  • history’s legacy in ‘Rathlin’,
  • the solitary selflessness in ‘Antarctica’,
  • changing times viewed optimistically in ‘Kinsale’,
  • from an individual’s mystery and elusiveness in ‘Grandfather’,
  • uncertainty and failure in ‘Day Trip to Donegal’,
  • guilt and suffering in ‘After the Titanic’,
  • cultural inheritance and community in ‘Ecclesiastes’,
  • threat and violence in ‘As it Should Be’.

His best known poem, seen by many as his greatest masterpiece, is ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’.  There the mushrooms become a symbol of lost voices struggling to be saved and the poems references to Peru, India, Treblinka and Pompeii allow the poem a huge historical and cultural framework and create what Hugh Haughton calls ‘a wonderful long perspective of historical time’.  When Declan Kiberd says that Mahon ‘has the mind of a conscience-stricken anthropologist’, we can see what he means when we read this particular poem.

*******

 In his recent poetry (not on the course!), especially in The Yellow Book, Mahon casts a cold eye on our consumer driven society and our image-obsessed world.  He writes of how now ‘Everywhere aspires to the condition of pop music, / the whole noise of late-century consumerism’ and of how our lives are affected by ‘road rage / spy cameras, radio heads, McDonalds, rowdytum, / laser louts and bouncers, chat shows, paparazzi, / stand up comedians and thug journalists’.  But the same poet can also write a poem called ‘Everything Is Going To Be Alright’ where he offers the following heartening lines:

The sun rises in spite of everything

                             And the far cities are beautiful and bright.

In the 1991 Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, Declan Kiberd describes Derek Mahon as ‘the most underrated Irish poet of the century’ and Michael Schmidt, in his Lives of the Poets, says that Mahon’s work has been ‘consistently undervalued for fifty years, not that neglect has seemed to bother or inhibit him.’  Derek Mahon is more interested in his poetry than in his reputation.  He knows that,

  The lines flow from the hand unbidden

                        And the hidden source is the watchful heart.

Derek Mahon by Anthony Palliser from Portraits d'Irlande
Derek Mahon by Anthony Palliser from Portraits d’Irlande

SAMPLE ANSWER:

‘Derek Mahon’s imagery is vivid, evocative and striking.’

Discuss this statement using some of the poetry you have studied to support or refute this viewpoint.

 

In his poetry, Derek Mahon engages with the ordinary, sometimes the unique, always the actual experiences of life.  His observations are of real places and real people; he refers to real events in an outdoor world of shorelines, rocks, hills, moorland, and island.

Mahon is a very imaginative and perceptive poet.  He responds to objects and landscapes in ways that are surprising and at times remarkable.  Usually he communicates his very personal observations in imagery that is vivid, evocative and striking.  In his poems, however, the use of landscape transcends the mere descriptive.  Landscape and seascape frequently reflect the poet’s insight, his hope, his frustration and his despair.  Much of this deeper resonance is achieved through imagery.

Mahon is a very visual writer.  His images vary from the domestic, where his grandfather bangs ‘around the house like a four-year old’, to the sublime where ‘A thousand mushrooms crowd to a keyhole. / This is the one star in their firmament’.  One of the principal functions of his imagery is to evoke moments of private and public suffering that have been ignored or forgotten.  On of the most striking images in his poems is that in ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’ where mushrooms wait ‘in a foetor / Of vegetable sweat since civil war days’.  For those who have not yet shed their ‘pale flesh’ into the earth, their long, tortuous existence, has almost destroyed their hope of ever being heard, ‘so long / Expectant that there is left only the posture’.  The extended image encompasses words such as ‘nightmares’, ‘prisoners’, ‘rached by drought’, to portray the chilling misery and despair of thousands who have died or survived in squalor.  These vivid images also evoke the terrible realisation that the poet is speaking of human suffering and torment, displacing their lives and their hurt on to the mushrooms in a striking association of men and object.  The power of the image is unquestionable, for it leaves us with diverse feelings of revulsion and of guilt for what has occurred in our history, the history of humankind, and for the unforgivable way in which the plight of the innocents has been forgotten.

This ability to use natural objects, such as mushrooms, to represent the human experiences and the poet’s own feelings and perspectives on those experiences, is also evident where Mahon evokes the elements of the Irish landscape.  In ‘Rathlin’, the poet once again recalls historical violence on an island that is now a ‘sanctuary’ of peace and ‘through with history’.  However, this refuge also witnessed ‘unspeakable violence’ and ‘screams of the Rathlin women’ when blood was shed in territorial battles.  Mahon connects the past with the present, and Rathlin with Belfast in the image of the bombs that ‘doze in the housing estates’.  It is a chilling reminder that violence has shattered the ‘dream-time’, the lives of men, women and children.

Mahon’s concern for the future helps us to understand his frustration in ‘Ecclesiastes’ when he witnesses ‘tied-up swings’, and listens to Godspeak from people who ‘love the January rains’ when people ‘darken the dark doors’ of ‘dank churches’.  Mahon deplores those who can ‘promise nothing under the sun’.  These vivid images of a bleak, oppressive urban landscape reflect the poet’s desolation, and his anger that ‘people still await’ understanding, forgiveness, and encouragement to embrace the ‘heat of the world’.  Sadly, the elemental rain beats down relentlessly.

Or does it?  In one of his later poems, ‘Kinsale’, there is a welcome and long-awaited moment of light and hope.  The poet himself seems to savour the parting of clouds in the opening lines when he says, ‘The kind of rain we knew is a thing of the past – / Deep-delving, dark, deliberate.’  The image of the yachts ‘tinkling and dancing’ is not only striking in its beauty but it is also positively uplifting.  There is a renewal of energy, of possibility.  It has come as a welcome respite, and not just to the reader, for the poet too utters his relief in the phrase ‘at last’.  The sun, that eternal image of hope, promises ‘a future forbidden to no-one’.

Derek Mahon is, therefore, a poet with a precise and imaginative eye.  He is capable of creating imagery that is vivid, evocative and striking.  His images reveal for us the bleak condition of society and of man yet the final note is more hopeful.  Like his mushrooms, perhaps, Mahon’s poems ‘have come so far in darkness’; but ‘contemplate at last / shining windows, a future forbidden to no one’.

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FINAL WORDS ON MAHON’S POETRY

  • His Themes include the darker side of life where Mahon reveals private and public suffering, pain, and violence. He also examines landscapes and seascapes and the way people interact with such placesAlienation is another recurring theme.  Some poems also explore the area of personal sacrifice while in ‘Kinsale’ a belief in the future concludes the selection on a more hopeful note.
  • Mahon can explore subjects that are not usually considered material for poetry, such as mushrooms, a derelict shed and a Chinese restaurant. His observations are very precise without being pretentious.  He also delves into the mindset of those who suffer, those who fail, and those who are fanatical in their politics or their religion.
  • Mahon employs a range of poetic forms. He can create very precise short stanza forms or longer, quite formal stanzas.  In the poems on our course he uses the couplet, tercet, quatrain, sonnet and villanelle.  Many of his longer stanzas are written in blank verse.
  • Rhyme is often internal although end-rhyme is also used. Mahon can make very effective use of alliteration and assonance.
  • The atmosphere that emerges from his poems is threatening, violent, and intimidating but there is also a definite feeling of love, sincerity and hope in other poems.
  • Mahon’s imagery shows his precise observations and gives a painterly quality to his poetry. Images are frequently related to the poet’s own experiences.  Colloquial language is another feature of his style.

Satin Island by Tom McCarthy

satin_island_cover_3212907a

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

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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.

 THEMES AND ISSUES

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?

LITERARY GENRE

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’.

CULTURAL CONTEXT

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.

GENERAL VISION/VIEWPOINT

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.
 

 

Just a thought…….

 There is a motif running through modern Irish literature where somebody starts out unable to speak, and finishes 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 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, that he is a person.

More recently Brian Friel also uses this more nuanced device in Translations where, as the play opens, Manus is teaching Sarah to speak in the local hedge school in Ballybeg.  Her speech defect is so bad that all her life she has been considered to be dumb and she herself has accepted this.  She is described in the Stage Directions as being ‘waiflike’ and she, ‘could be any age from seventeen to thirty-five’.  She is used in the play to symbolise the vexed issue, a preoccupation of Friel’s, of communication, language and Irish identity.  In the play Sarah is perpetually spoken for, she then gradually finds her voice only to lose it again. She never achieves the eloquence of Stephen Dedalus or Christy Mahon.  Towards the end of the play she  refuses to speak to Captain Lancey and maybe this act can be interpreted as regressing back to her previous state or maybe as an act of resistance to his colonising influence……..

This enforced silence is also a feature of more recent Irish writing.   A well-known saying in the North during ‘The Troubles’ was, ‘Whatever you say, say nothing’.   Seamus Heaney used the phrase as the title and the theme of one of his most impressive poems on the North of Ireland:

‘The famous Northern reticence, the tight gag of place

And times: yes, yes.  Of the ‘wee six’ I sing

Where to be saved you only must save face

And whatever you say, say nothing.’

There is a natural reserve built in to any discussion about politics or about happenings where there may be conflict.  Nowhere is this depicted better than in Seamus Deane’s brilliant novel about the Northern Ireland conflict, Reading in the Dark.