By Seamus Deane.
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.
ISBN # 0-394-57440-0.
245 pages.

Comments of Bob Corbett
December 2004

There is a sense in which this is two separate books woven into one successful unit. The first book is composed of non-connected vignettes of life in a Catholic working class neighborhood between 1945-1968 in Derry, Northern Ireland. These are tied together by being presented as memories or stories heard by the unnamed narrator. They are written as experiences in and around his family, school and church world. These pieces are beautifully written, insightful of the essence of the experience and compellingly believable.

We read of classroom experiences in elementary school, his growing awareness of girls as he grows up, Irish legends and fairy tales, the death of his sister as experienced from his four year old perception and on and on.

I found it exciting to see each of these short pieces appearing as separate units, yet slowly and surely coalescing to form a vivid picture of life in his neighborhood.

I was moved by the narrator’s revealing an elementary school experience which stimulated his own writing form:

The English teacher read out a model essay which had been, to our surprise, written by a country boy. It was an account of his mother setting the table for the evening meal and then waiting with him until his father came in from the fields. She put out a blue-and- white jug full of milk and a covered dish of potatoes in their jackets and a red-rimmed butter dish with a slab of butter, the shape of a swan dipping its head imprinted on its surface. That was the meal. Everything was so simple, especially the way they waited. She sat with her hands in her lap and talked to him about someone up the road who had had an airmail letter from America. She told him that his father would be tired, but, tired as he was, he wouldn't be without a smile before he washed himself and he wouldn't be so without his manners to forget to say grace before they ate and that he, the boy, should watch the way the father would smile when the books were produced for homework, for learning was a wonder to him, especially the Latin. Then there would be no talking, just the ticking of the clock and the kettle humming and the china dogs on the mantelpiece looking, as ever, across at one another.

"Now that," said the master, "that's writing. That's just telling the truth."

I felt embarrassed because my own essay had been full of long or strange words I had found in the dictionary "cerulean," "azure," "phantasm" and "implacable" -- all of them describing skies and seas I had seen only with the Ann of the novel. I'd never thought such stuff was worth writing about. It was ordinary life -- no rebellions or love affairs or dangerous flights across the hills at night. And yet I kept remembering that mother and son waiting in the Dutch interior of that essay, with the jug of milk and the butter on the table, while behind and above them were those wispy, shawly figures from the rebellion, sibilant above the great fire and below the aching, high wind.

The second book within this novel is a long set of vignettes all dealing with the same theme – the disappearance of the narrator’s Uncle Eddie in an IRA uprising in 1922. This is connected to family-renting feuds, secrets and revealed in bits and pieces via the same method as the less connected stories, yet building toward a crescendo with gripping drama and breathtaking suspense and surprises.

Since the broader essays and the Eddie-related essays are all mixed together, the two separable books merge into one highly original form for this novel will a structure like I’ve never seen before.

I recommend this novel without reservation.

Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett