Books Ireland April Review.
The Things We Know opens with a jolt. A mother, Ella, out sailing with her husband, feels sudden fear. Her happiness gone, her instinct tells her something is badly wrong. Trusting her intuition, her husband turns the boat for home.
Catherine Dunne handles this tragic opening with delicacy. It’s the husband, Patrick, narrating the story. As the couple rush for their car, the author changes from the past to the present tense, so increasing the pace. And by the time they find, to their horror, that Ella’s instinct was bang on, we feel we already know this family. We’ve had a glimpse of their lifestyle; we’re aware of their bond, and we share in their pain. It’s an extraordinary achievement, reminiscent of the epic opening of Ian McEwen’s Enduring Love.
Daniel; their adored only son, has hung himself. At fourteen, a talented musician and artist with every privilege, good friends, and a solid extended family, this seems unthinkable. What drove him to it? That’s the question.
This is Dunne’s ninth novel, and is, quite possibly, her most accomplished yet. She’s built up a loyal following since that first book, In The Beginning’ won instant acclaim. And she’s built on that, pushing her writing a little more, and experimenting with form and structure.
Patrick, now 74, tells his story, dipping back in time, talking of his first wife, Cecelia; of his love for her, and intense grief at her sudden death. Then, starting a confession, he admits his duplicity. There were affairs in that first marriage; lots of them, in the early days, but they stopped, he tells us, the moment his young daughter, seeing her mother upset, created a scene.
That daughter, Rebecca, takes up the story. Still furious with her father, she can’t accept his new love Ella. Or won’t. Her twin sisters are welcoming, relieved to see their father rise from his grief, but Rebecca doesn’t see it that way.
We can’t like Rebecca. Self centred in the extreme, she’s bitter, bitchy, difficult, but she’s human. When she says she can’t warm to Ella, a therapist, because of ‘her professional faux-empathy. All that eye contact, that kind attentiveness to your words, her goddam reasonableness of the way she looked at the world,’ I could understand her feelings totally.
Moving back to the time of Daniel’s death, more voices emerge. We hear from the twins, Frances, and the gentle Sophie; from Daniel’s friends, Edward and Sylvia; from Ella’s friend Maryam, and from Daniel, himself, until all the pieces of the jigsaw are complete.
I felt that, perhaps, the author had overdone this; it would have been nice to have been left with a few questions unanswered. Had she left out Daniel’s voice, we’d still have reached the denouement.
It’s a small gripe. I liked the way each character spoke with their own, distinctive voice. Patrick’s is dry; precise; a little pedantic; almost certainly unreliable. Central to the book, is his guilt. Should he have known what was wrong? Did he know? Was he hiding from the truth because he was so intent on having the perfect son?
I won’t give any spoilers, but suffice it to say, The Things we Know Now, is, truly, a novel for our time. It’s important, shedding light on an issue that is hugely relevant to teenagers, and to their parents.
In Dunne’s book, Patrick is rendered helpless with depression after the death of his first wife. The writer, playwright, and columnist, Michael Harding recently suffered depression, though not through grief. And he’s made his physical and mental breakdown the pivotal event for his memoir, Staring at Lakes.
The book opens with Harding in bed in Leitrim, waiting for his wife, the sculptor Cathy Carmen to bring him porridge. He describes his sense of despair, before delving through his life, from his early childhood, marred by the emotional neglect of his mother; through his time as a priest, and despair when Pope John Paul 11 turned back the clock of Catholicism, to his meeting, whilst still a priest, with his dark haired wife.
This happened at Annaghmakerrig, when she had a family elsewhere, and he was still a priest. I adored this section. One gets a true sense of Harding’s unease with life. He doesn’t realise that he is, and probably always was, mildly depressed; thinking that he is simply searching for life’s meaning. He was convinced ‘love’ was the answer.
‘Because if there was one thing that made me feel alive, it was being in love.’
Yet, in spite of wonderfully happy times together, it takes Harding years to commit to the woman he loves. And later, when their daughter decides she must go to school in Mullingar, he wastes no time in agreeing to live there with her; in fact he can’t wait to escape domesticity.
Is this melancholia all down to childhood? Certainly Harding thinks it is. He keeps harking back to a Father Fingers, who, terrifying his pupils with his sarcasm, constantly tells the young Harding that he is an Ass. The adult Harding believes this. Why else is he a failed priest, failed writer and failed family man?
Harding describes the start of Ireland’s recession. His fear as the worst news struck, and his shock at learning his savings – all in bank shares – had evaporated overnight is wonderfully told. In fact, it’s the most realistic account of boom to bust Ireland I’ve read anywhere. Describing the day he discovered his money had gone, he holds it together, until his IPod ceases to work, so denying him Bob Dylan. Ringing India for help, he says,
‘I wanted to tell her that the budget in Ireland had exhausted me, that sorrow comes with age.’
His real decline began in 2010. He gives us a frank, full, and physically explicit disclosure of his two years of physical decay and depression. Spending his days in bed, weeping, he somehow finds the strength to tour Ireland with a one man show. It’s a searingly honest account, which many who have been through depression will surely recognise.
He has, of course, now returned to health. But the book didn’t end here. It meandered on, flitting backwards and forwards in time, and from monastery to Buddhist retreat, as Harding continues to investigate magical thinking. Dipping back to childhood traumas, he goes through ‘re-birthing.’ Other writers make random appearances, but by this stage, I was starting to tire.
I wondered if, maybe, the publishers had demanded a hefty word count, or whether the author was determined to use up all his spare material. Whichever, it was a pity. I reviewed Harding’s most recent novel, The Bird in the Snow on these pages, and was in awe of the economy of his writing.
I’m aware that Harding planned his memoir to be episodic, and at the start this method it works to perfection. Indeed, there is much to be in awe of in this memoir; but as it moves on, there isn’t that same consistency of tone.
John Toomey is nothing, if not economic with words. His second novel. Huddlestone Road fairly rattles along.
The minute Vic meets Lali, he’s smitten. But she doesn’t repay the compliment.
‘Sorry, but I don’t do freckles,’ she says. But when the two meet again, by chance, Lali seduces Vic. She takes full charge of their lovemaking, but the following morning, seems indifferent.
And so begins this tortured love story, set in London, between the cafe owner, and the English teacher from Dublin. It’s obvious, from the start, that this won’t be a straightforward love story. And in fact the author tells us so.
‘Her body, burnt umber against her brilliant white underwear, and the anticipation, imprinted itself on his psyche, and remained there through all the years and discolouring experiences that followed.’
In these days of long, wordy books, this second novel stands apart. At 182 pages it’s succinct to the point of brevity. There isn’t a lot of dialogue, the tone is one of telling, rather than showing, and the text is stripped so bare, that years can pass in a page.
One would think this would be an irritant, and indeed, it goes against perceived writing wisdom, but in this case it works well. And that’s down to the author’s assurance with words. His prose flows, and some of his descriptive scenes are brilliant; so good, that they could compete with those of John Banville.
Toomey’s characterisation is spot on too. Lali might be unlikeable; she’s mean and manipulative, but it’s easy to understand why Vic might become obsessed with her; she takes a hold on the reader, too. The secondary characters are also well drawn, from Vic’s bemused parents back in Dublin, to his friend and fellow teacher James, who had tried, hard, to warn his friend off Lali.
There are times I felt the narrative had been cut down a little too far. There’s one instance where Vic hands Lali a present, and urges her to open it, then declines to tell us what is inside.
In the second half of this novel, Toomey explores dark themes. And if the fallout from the disintegration of the relationship becomes a little hard to take at times, the underlying theme, that ‘when you got involved with the fucked up – eventually, they fucked you up too,’ is well followed through on.
Once Vic has become embroiled with Lali, a girl whose childhood was full of trauma, he can’t escape her influence. At the close of the novel he’s emerging from a state of drunken incoherence. Can he erase the worst of Lali’s legacy, and let the good memories in? This is an interesting novel from a writer who dares to be different.
© Sue Leonard. 2013