Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Seamus Deane's "Reading in the Dark": Book Review

While I enjoyed this novel for its evocation of the moods of downmarket Derry in the postwar mid-20th century period, much of the plot driven by the narrator's attempts to decipher the truth about his family's involvement with the death of a man falsely claimed to be an informer and the flight of the one who was the informer failed to engage me. It's as if the whole mystery that the unnamed narrator unravels stays more locked in his head rather than leaping across into your mind. The book has an extremely hermetic quality, and therefore recalls both the memoirs of Frank McCourt and recent Irish writers as well as, inevitably, Joyce's "Portrait." The scrupulous detachment of Joyce, however, tends to enter this novel more than the sentimentality of a memoirist. There may be about the same amount of humor as in early Joyce, but much more of this work deals with demons externalized rather than internalized.

Yet, this novel will not allow you to wander in your imagination through fully-realized Derry on paper. Contrasted with McCourt's Limerick or Joyce's Dublin, you will gain less of an external sense of Derry's streets; the mental demons and emotional tensions predominate. Deane wishes to place you inside a boy's growing independence from the inhibitions, betrayals, and surveillance that keep him enclosed in Derry.

The phrasing Deane--often deftly-- employs pays homage to his predecessor, and like Stephen Dedalus, the young boy grows up under the tutelage of Jesuits, a working-class urban neighborhood hemmed off by sectarian divides and municipal gerrymandering from its more prosperous neighbors, and an atmosphere redolent of corruption between police and prelates. There's a chapter with a Maths teacher's madly logical recital that could have sprung, on the other hand, from Flann O'Brien, and for lighter comedy many conversations on topics as disparate as curses from returned husbands at sea, the fort Grianan's secret passage, and the film "Beau Geste" -- the latter one made me miss my subway stop, so caught up was I in the wry comedic touches reproducing recursive Irish conversation.

Overall, however, this sober look back at childhood remains with you for the menacing touches-- of Crazy Jim's lubriciously leering ascetism, of a whiskey distillery exploding under police assault on an IRA squad, on the vignettes of suppressed lust and Ignatian spirituality and classroom banter. The book did rush past the Troubles and I wish this had either been left for a sequel, as it deserved fuller attention, or left out. The later decades are glimpsed, but so interesting is Deane's material here that you wish for more than the handful of pages that serve as a coda to the postwar emphasis.

Two brief examples of Deane's prose, both about the same event and place but recalled in chapters separated by five years and a hundred and fifty pages, illustrate his method. The narrator's trying to piece together the past and the fate of the informer that serves as the plot, however dispersed and slowly shared. Such distension of elements that make up this novel is characteristic, and may either lull readers or entrance them. "The dismembered streets lay strewn all around the ruined distillery where Uncle Eddie had fought, aching with a long, dolorous absence. With the distillery gone the smell of vaporised whiskey and heated red brick, the sullen glow that must have loomed over the crouching houses like an amber sunset." (32) This for me recalls a story from "Dubliners."

Compare: "And the distillery smouldered into the dawn, surprising the seagulls who came in from the docks to soar around it and cry away from its heat and smell." (193) This too may recall Joyce! Yet, I do not mean to place Deane within the formidable power only of Joyce. While resonances abound, the added edge of The Troubles and the Northern milieu do show readers elsewhere impressions of an bucolically placed, if often dolefully embattled, city on the River Foyle which, far less than Belfast, or even than neighboring Donegal, has earned much attention in Irish fiction.

While the novel by its ambling structure fragments the telling of the narrator's maturation into gradual understanding cloaked by familial secrets, and so dilutes the impact upon the reader and the narrator, the strongest features remain the telling of the tale itself, more than the tale's contents. "Ghosts of the Disappeared" haunt a field, a child's soul remains trapped in a window, rural changelings and the urban insane mingle in the streets of Derry and the stories of its uprooted people. They enter the city, yet cannot escape rural Irish superstition and the maledictions of their ancestors. This long shadow darkens and ultimately permeates the narrator and his novel.

(Posted to Amazon US today. Surprisingly, #45 in the queue, but the novel's been on my shelf since it's publication waiting for me, from over a decade ago!)

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