Reading in the Dark
Some years back I worked with a woman who hailed from Mississippi. A talented engineer who would tackle advanced math the way you might the dishes, she was also a walking encyclopedia of regional folkways. Among these was the delightful phrase, “Haints is real y’all.”
I’ve a lot of sympathy for that belief.
So, I think, might Seamus Deane, as long as he were allowed the poetic license to expand the meaning of ghosts. Because that’s exactly what he’s done with this haunting book, which I’ve just finished reading for the second time.
Deane is an Irishman, born in Derry in, as his scant book jacket biography notes, 1940. That’s important and not just because the novel is set there and is contemporaneous, more or less, with Deane.
Derry lies on the banks of the River Foyle, caught between running water and the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. It’s a no man’s land, at once both as near to, and as far from, where it belongs as is possible. For the children of this book, and their deep-rooted families, that border is a fiction, passed over with impunity as these sons of Ulster pass back and forth into Donegal.
About now, if I were you, I’d be expecting a set-up. Perhaps a pivot to geography as metaphor for war and displacement. Deane is too much an artist to adopt such a ham-fisted approach. Plenty of ink has been spilled on that already. He’s other ground to hoe at a far more personal level.
That sort of brings us back to the ghosts. The haints are critical to this tale and they arrive quickly as I recall from my first encounter with the novel, soon after it first appeared in US bookstores, in 1997.
Early on, the narrator’s mother asks him to place flowers on the grave of his recently deceased sister, Una. A young lad, more interested in play than boneyards, he remembers his task late in the waning day when the flower merchants have closed their doors. He hurries to the cemetery, collecting a haphazard bouquet from nearby, better-tended graves and delivers it, feeling remorseful and calling to his sister, “I have to go. I don’t like leaving you, but I have to go, Una.” (p.17)
That’s when she came back.
“She, it was Una, was coming right down the path before me for an instant, dressed in her usual tartan skirt and jumper, her hair tied in ribbons, her smile sweeter than ever. Even as I said her name, she wasn’t there and I was running on, saying her name again, frightened now, until I reached the wall and looked back from the broken top stones over the gloomy hillside and its heavy burden of the dead.” (p. 17)
That image stuck with me, leading me to do what I rarely do: press the book upon friends, often as a gift. None seemed as taken with it as I was and I freely admit that the attraction was the familiarity of this unnamed family and narrator.
That attraction was not just the death in childhood of a sibling. It was the culture, instantly recognizable as the one in which I’d been raised two decades later and an ocean away. It’s all there. The illness. The deaths. The things unspoken. The stubborn decisions about emotions that create walls that become prisons.
The tale told in the book spans roughly 30 years, from the end of the Second World War to the start of the Troubles. Our narrator belongs to a large working class Catholic family. The father an ex-boxer, the mother an Irish mother, the siblings a ragtag lot with every Irish name you’ve ever heard.
Except for our nameless first person narrator, his parents and grandfather. What does one make of a book where the peripheral characters have identities and the central ones none? They’re living ghosts, haunted by what’s not said about the dead, though even the dead have names and identities.
What’s unsaid is rooted in the early 20th century battle to throw off British rule. People took sides, first based on their religious faith, then on their politics. Thirty years on the distinctions have been buried and one can’t know, just by looking, what side one was on or who did what to whom.
The extended family–father’s brother Eddie and mother’s brother-in-law in particular–are dead, exiled or missing. All three, if you think about it, are living forms of ghosthood.
There’s a deep secret at the heart of those absences, one that can only be hinted at and which can only be passed on or buried. With the passing goes the burden and so our narrator knows things the others never will. That, too, is a familiar if uncomfortable place with which I have a passing acquaintance.
When I think about this book I can’t help juxtapose it to Roddy Doyle‘s ‘political’ trilogy. The backdrop is similar but the talents are vastly different. As I’ve said before, Doyle may have the finest ear for dialog of any living writer. Deane is a poet working in prose. The sentences are crafted, the details carefully selected and illuminated, the words, especially, selected with care.
It’s not that other writers don’t do the same. Open Doyle, though, and you’ll often see pages of conversations. Here you get walls of text that, once your dread passes, offer marvels at every turn.
There are too many such moments to single any particular one out. So I’ll just end by recommending you read it for yourself and by selecting a passage from a randomly chosen page just to illustrate what you’ll be in for if you do.
“So I sat and waited. When I shouted, my voice ricocheted all around me and then vanished. i had never known such blackness. I could hear the wind, or maybe it was the far-off sea. That was the breathing Fianna. I could smell the heather and gorse tinting the air; that was the Druid spells. I could hear the underground waters whispering; that was the women sighing. The cold was marrow-deep; the chair seemed to shine with it. A scuttling, as of field mice, would come and go; perhaps it was mortar trickling away from the stones. I crawled down to the entrance and shouted again. Eventually, someone came and rolled the stone back, and I scrambled out into the sunshine, dazed by the light, unsteady when i walked, as though all my blood had collected around my ankles.” (p. 68)