A boy's childhood is lived out in two dimensions. One is legendary: the Sun-Fort of Grianan; where children are stolen away by demonic forces. The other is actual: the city of Derry in the the 1940s and 1950s; a place that is also haunted by political enmities, family secrets and intrigue.
The story, told through the eyes of an unnamed boy, stretches in vignettes from 1945-1971; it almost reads like a memoir, but it is not. Deane reminds me of John McGahern, another Irish writer whom I like very much, in the sense that he explores the extraordinary in ordinary life, and he weaves it with a gentle, deft hand, with empathy, with wonderful descriptions (“…we looked blindly at the shivery furrows the wind opened in the hissing corn…”), wonderful characters--- people just living their lives, making choices voluntarily or, more often, involuntarily as life and circumstances impose. It is a novel about the complications of family love and the depths that it can have. It is about knowing and not knowing, about how different people understand a particular incident or happening quite differently from others because everyone has a different angle and no one knows everything. Or it is about knowing and suppressing knowledge because of the consequences of truth. It is about secrets learned, secrets told, secrets suppressed, and the corrosive effects of either course of action. It is about memory: “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 recognized all they had told. Some of the things I remember, I don’t really remember. I’ve just been told about them so now I feel I remember them, and want to the more because it is so important for to others to forget them.”
Deane, like McGahern, has the ability to capture a mood, a moment, a lifetime in an economy of words and descriptions: “At that thought, they would weep. ‘Unforgiven, unforgiven’, they would cry. I would have a sudden sense of the scale of the lives these women lived as I watched them dab at their eyes, or sit with their hands over their faces, their shoes wrinkled and turned inward toward one another, in a circle. The dimensions of that other world opened around me and my stomach contracted. It was no use saying to myself that I believed none of this. There it was, a vast universe in which Grandfather’s spirit moved lightless, for ever extinct, for ever alive to its own extinction, while his daughters mourned within the tiny globe of this kitchen and the world he had so austerely left. They would sit silent then, while the lids of the saucepans trembled on the range and the bubbling water gargled.” The wrinkled shoes turned inwards, the saucepans trembling and the water gargling: this is perfect.
It is also a novel about Ireland. I don’t think those of us who never lived it can really grasp what it meant to live in a society, in a town, in a neighbourhood, where religion and politics and history so completely define and dominate one’s existence. A place where going to the police (if you were Catholic) was the most traitorous thing you could do. A place of generational curses, and ghosts that walk and torment the living, and priests whose hair turns white overnight as they fight the devil in what is described as almost hand-to-hand combat. A limiting world but one so alive and teeming with emotions and relations.
Deane also writes with a great sense of humour. The description of our young protagonist receiving sex education from a celibate priest is hilarious: “ A moment later he said ‘vagina’ and was asking me if I knew that word, and what it was. I knew what it must be but I couldn’t envisage it and when he asked me if I knew where it was, I gave a slightly hysterical smile and said yes, yes, I did, but I was telling myself, no, you don’t, not really, ask him, you stupid shit, ask him, that’s what you’re here for, but I couldn’t do anything except stare at him….”
This is a very fine novel. Strongly recommended.
Deane's story is full of the expected: a repressive Catholic education; ghosts on the staircase and in the graveyard; children dying of diseases now controllable; an aunt whose husband disappeared, leaving his pregnant new bride to raise their child alone; scrapes with the police; and always, always, the lingering Troubles. But here, the telling is even more striking than the story:
So broken was my father's family that it felt to me like a catastrophe you could live with only if you kept it quiet, let it die down of its own accord like a dangerous fire. Eddie gone. Both parents both dead within a week. Two sisters, Ena and Bernadette, treated like skivvies and living in a hen-house. A long, silent feud. A lost farmhouse, with rafters and books in it, near the field of the disappeared. Silence everywhere. My father knowing something about Eddie, not talking but sometimes nearly talking, signalling. I felt like we lived in an empty space with a long cry from him ramifying through it. At other times, it appeared to be as cunning and articulate as a labyrinth, closely designed, with someone sobbing at the heart of it.
A beautifully written novel about love, conscience, secrets, and legacy, highly recommended.
The story begins in February 1945, and continues on until July 1971. Set in Northern Ireland, it is the story of a boy who lives with mom & dad, brothers and sisters, and has brief reminiscent glimpses in his head of a farmhouse with rafters and walls of books. The boy remembers being quickly swept up and removed from the place, but doesn't remember why. It had something to do with a feud (his name for the house is the feud-farmhouse), but no one in the family wants to speak of it. In the meantime, his mother sees ghosts. Not only does she see them, she has them but again, she doesn't want to reveal the nature of those ghosts. Little by little, the boy begins to uncover the story of what remains unspoken within his household, and again, like most literature I have been reading that is set in Ireland, it is a secret that is an ongoing legacy of the time of the fight for Irish independence and the fight for freedom. It is also a secret that once known, drives a permanent wedge between himself and his mother; her ghosts are private, it seems, and even though he will never tell anyone, she resents him for even knowing it.
Deceptively simple, each chapter is only a few pages in length, the book's complexity tends to sneak up on you before you realize it. Every little nuance, every story, every colorful phrase in the book means something.
I would definitely recommend this book.
"Once and informer, always an informer," the Protestant policemen sneer.
'What could have possessed you to go running to those vermin? (police) Have you no self-respect, no pride?And if you've none for yourself, have you none for the rest of us?' This from his father.
This could easily been just another 'miserable Irish childhood' book akin to 'Angela's Ashes' but because of Deane's poetic background it raises it above that. And you can see that poetry running right the way through it with the effocative descriptions yet with the sparing use of words so that you feel none are wasted. The story is not all doom and gloom either as there also some very touching comic touches especially as a Catholic priest tries to give sex education to the boy. Deane uses language very cleverly to show the narators growing maturity from young innocent adolescent to more worldly wise youth.
This is a book I thoroughly enjoyed and would really recommend
Dean presents a compelling look at life in embattled Northern Ireland. He presents to the reader an intimate portrait of an Irish-Catholic family. He offers the superstitions surrounding this family. He allows the reader to accept that a ghost can be a spirit or a memory—that both are haunting and can be frightening enough to devastate lives.
The story is presented in a first person child’s view, albeit it an omniscient view. Dean walks us through the confusion of growing up an outcast in his community—which is itself outcast from the society in which it is enmeshed. We, as readers, are presented with several different perspectives of the outsider. Dean’s mother keeps herself just beyond the intimacy of her family, specifically her husband and sister, by keeping her secrets. Secrets that eventually drive her insane. Her husband, Dean’s father, remains outside because of what he does not know, as well as what he does. Each of the children in this family is left on the outside because none of them knows the whole truth.
For Irish-Americans (like Dean) reaching back to untangle the things unsaid can be a healing process. To write about it offers others a door into the silences in their own families. I have read many books about Irish and Irish-American families and the recurring theme of prevailing silence—and how families function, or don’t, around that. Dean’s direct insertion of the larger socio-political picture into the dynamic speaks more directly to the issue and perhaps can offer, at least for Dean, a way to find definition to who he is—and why.
It didn't take me long to finish the book, as it is rather short. I can't say I'd recommend it over other magnificent books of the world, but it was a rather pleasant and fairly rewarding read.
The writing is elegant, but this is not an easy read. The subplots are complicated. Some chapters have little to do with the main plot. The reader picks up clues as they occur to the unnamed protagonist. The pieces come together slowly, like a jigsaw puzzle. In the end the reader is left with a vivid, warts and all, picture of life in Northern Ireland, past and present, on the Catholic side. It seems too real to be a novel, but at least the names are fictional. Worth reading, if you are willing to give it the time and attention it requires.