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By Brian Moore
Boston: Back Bay Books, 1998 from 1955 original
ISBN: 0-316-57966-1 223 pages

Bob Corbett
September 2015

Judith Hearne is an older spinster. She has had a very hard life with family pressures to care for an older aunt which kept her from really making her own living. Now she has a very tiny income and lives in a fairly run down guest house. This is not her “permanent” home to say the least and she seems to have had a long list of short stays in boarding houses. She tends to arrive, live there for some weeks, perhaps months now and again, and soon moves off to another place.

The various guest houses are all rather seedy, as is her current one, and she sort of just gets used to the people and life in which ever this house she’s in.

The woman who runs the boarding house lives with her son who is 30+ years old and fancies himself as a poet. He doesn’t do anything except write, or pretend to write, his poems. In the recent past the landlady’s brother, James Madden has recently returned to Ireland and has also taken up residence in his sister’s home in Belfast. He is a man of great bluster and leads folks to believe he even owned a hotel in New York. In matter of fact he was a doorman, could never make it in New York, but was injured on a public bus and awarded $10,000 in damages. It is this money that allows him to appear to be quite rich, and he has dreams of turning this money into some fortune in Ireland. In fact it just allows him to have money to hang around taverns each day pretending to be this man of independent wealth, while burning through his disability money.

Judith does have one family which takes her in each Sunday to have a meal with them. They are not relatives, and they actually dread her coming, but attempt (unsuccessfully) to pretend they are so happy to see her each week. Nonetheless, Judith goes there each Sunday since these are about her only positive contacts in her life.

The former New Yorker, Madden, tends to think Judith has some money, so he takes her to the movies and such thinking he can somehow fleece her, but when Madden’s sister, the landlady, sort of insults Judith she reverts for the first time in some years to whisky and makes quite a stir in the boarding house, making Madden learn that she has no money and so he completely dumps her. This event also makes the landlady desirous of getting rid of her.

Judith’s life of loneliness, hardship, dependence upon others, lack of any decent self-image and basically a very meaningless and difficult life leave her in a very sad state of depression. It seems the bottle is her sole escape, yet, time after time it causes her terrible problems and the inability to keep a room in any rooming house.

All these troubles bring Judith to a crisis moment and this creates her first ever doubtfulness of her relationship with God. She had always been a fairly unquestioning Roman Catholic, but it seems to her that perhaps even God has abandoned her.

The novel is set in the early 1950s and reflects the culture of Ireland at that time. Brian Moore has created a fully believable and desperately sad human being in Judith Hearne. The novel is not really a “pleasant” read, but deeply touching. It reveals to us the plight of so many people in the world who seem, for a huge variety of reasons, to have few or no friends, little in the way of family life, and are poor to boot. This particular figure, Judith Hearne, is as the title suggests a very lonely and profoundly sad human being. Nonetheless I would recommend the novel as a valuable and gripping read.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett