Reading in the Dark 
by Seamus Deane.
Cape, 233 pp., £13.99, September 1996, 0 224 04405 2
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In the old times, long before the birth of the Irish Free State, a young woman called Brigid McLaughlin went down from Derry to work in southern Donegal. Her job was to look after two children, a girl and a boy, aged nine and seven, orphans. ‘The children were beautiful,’ we are told, ‘especially the girl. She was dark, the boy was fair. They spoke Irish only.’ Fortunately, Brigid spoke Irish, too. She had a year’s contract, ‘but she was not, for all of that year, to leave the children out of her charge and was never to take them away from the house itself.’ The children were charming and well-mannered, and every day they visited their parents’ grave behind the house, and sat there for a long time. On a bad day in autumn, rain pouring down, Brigid forbade them to do this, and had her first quarrel with her charges. Not only that. In the morning they had exchanged their hair colour, the boy was now dark, the girl was fair. And yet they insisted that they had always been that way, that nothing was different. When Brigid took them to the priest, they promptly switched back again to their original dispensation. Later the children exchanged voices, even sexes, and Brigid discovered that they could not be seen in a mirror. ‘She knew now that she was being challenged by evil, and the children were being stolen from her by whatever was in that grave out the back.’ Finally, the grave won out, and the children were gone for good. Brigid returned to Derry ‘completely strange in the head’, and gave up talking. Once a year, on the anniversary of the children’s disappearance, she would sing an Irish song the children sang just before they left. No one in Derry understood the words.

This story is told by the narrator’s Aunt Katie in Reading in the Dark. Its resemblance to The Turn of the Screw can scarcely be an accident, given the care and extent of Seamus Deane’s own reading, in the dark and elsewhere. But there is another way of looking at the resemblance. It is possible that Aunt Katie and the narrator within James’s story are both in touch with a world of legend, always present but taking on a particular edge at certain times and in certain places, where the dead are felt to have designs on the living. We don’t need to ask whether ghosts are real (what a question), but we can ask what it means when the dead won’t stay dead. Or more precisely: when the dead won’t stay dead, what sort of life do the living have?

The young woman, the children, the isolated house, the magical changes, the lure of the dead, the sense of evil are all common to both of these stories, as is, roughly, their date, the end of the 19th century. But of course the priest belongs to Catholicism, and the places and the language, and most poignantly, the loss of the language, belong to Ireland. Another story told in Reading in the Dark concerns a father, a man from Malin, whose baby daughter died in a fever hospital in Derry. He collects the child’s belongings, but one sock is missing. He spends the rest of his life trying to find the sock because he believes his daughter cannot enter paradise until the tally of clothes is complete. The teller of this story, Tony McIlhenny, says the father has created ‘the worst punishment of all’ for his child, ‘not being able to let it die properly, getting it caught between this world and the next’. ‘The air of Donegal, of all Ireland, was full of such people, he had claimed, because of our bad history.’ The narrator’s mother has another reading of the story’s moral, one that brings us back to Derry, perhaps to a particular family. The moral for her is ‘that people in small places make big mistakes. Not bigger than the mistakes of other people. But that there is less room for big mistakes in small places.’

Bad history, big mistakes. But what is the father’s mistake? That he thinks he is to blame for his daughter’s death? That he can’t grieve except through his strangeness? That he decides to live out a superstition? That he is misinformed about paradise? In all interpretations, and even if there is no mistake, he is haunted by history, trapped by the past, caught between this world and the next – if the next world is the place you can’t get to, is whatever place you can’t get to. Like the children, the man is claimed by the dead, and speaks a language others can’t understand. As Deane writes in a poem in his volume Gradual Wars( 1972), ‘There is no realism / For loss.’

Seamus Deane’s remarkable new book reads like a memoir, although the dust-jacket calls it a novel. It traces out a series of scenes, almost snapshots, of a boy’s life in Derry, starting in February 1945, when the boy is quite young (Deane was born in Derry in 1940), and ending in July 1971, when the grown boy, now ten years out of college in Belfast, visits for a weekend. There are 47 scenes, all dated by month and year, with a strong concentration on the period 1948 to 1954. Two other dates are crucial to the book: 1922, the year of the shoot-out between the police and the IRA at the Derry distillery, the product of ‘a last-minute protest at the founding of the new state’, and the moment at which the narrator’s family history crystallised into its equivalent of the visited grave or the missing baby sock; and 1968, when ‘the Troubles came’, as Deane puts it, the words Northern Ireland took on their contemporary meaning, and the narrator’s mother had a stroke and lost the power of speech. Since she was not going to speak anyway, this touch is more than usually symbolic. Symbolic of what? This is hard to say without giving Deane’s plot line away, and the gradual unravelling of a mystery is an important part of the experience of reading the book. Let’s just say that Tony McIlhenny plays a role, that there was an informer in the family, and an old unhappy love story, and that the person whom the IRA executed as the informer was after all innocent. The fact that the narrator’s grandfather gave the order for the execution keeps things in the family and compounds the multiple silences involved. Scarcely anyone understands anyone’s language here, and when someone does, as happens when the narrator discovers his mother’s secret, the understanding seems far worse than ignorance.

A good many, perhaps most of the snapshots seem unrelated to this plot. There is the boy at school, the maths lesson, religious instruction, the carpeting for skipping off from a retreat; the boy getting into fights, going courting, going to the movies, getting confirmed, being told about sex by a mild, unworldly priest-teacher. There is the sister’s illness and death, the aunt’s death, the grandfather’s death. There are the rats in the ruins of the old air-raid shelters, the rainy landscapes, the old fort near Derry, overlooking Lough Foyle, the Field of the Disappeared, near Lough Swilly:

There was a belief that it was here that the souls of all those from the area who had disappeared, or had never had a Christian burial, like fishermen who had drowned and whose bodies had never been recovered, collected three or four times a year – on St Brigid’s Day, on the festival of Samhain, on Christmas Day – to cry like birds and look down on the fields where they had been born. Any human who entered the field would suffer the same fate; and any who heard their cries on those days should cross themselves and pray out loud to drown out the sound.

The shadow of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, perhaps necessarily and certainly by design, lies heavy on much of this writing. This is partly a matter of voice, the imitation of innocence or the attention to the materiality of words:

That was to stop a person going to hell. Hell was a deep place. You fell into it, turning over and over in mid-air until the blackness sucked you into a great whirlpool of flames and you disappeared for ever ...

  But this was a new sickness. Meningitis. It was a word you had to bite on to say it. It had a fright and a hiss in it.

Deane is also offering us a commentary on Joyce, however, a return to the world Stephen Dedalus spent his life trying to escape and/or deny. That world is inescapable, Deane is saying, far more Catholic and historical and haunted than either Joyce or Dedalus could allow themselves to believe, and far more in fee to troubles. Yet it is not a hopeless world, not a world only of the dead, or made up entirely of silences. Just a world where the dead make unusual but not impossible demands on the living; or rather where the possibility or impossibility of those demands is still to be weighed – by the living.

There is a novel here, in the sense that the story matters – I can’t judge what’s fact and fiction in the narration. If we don’t get the story, we don’t get the book’s central metaphor about silence and history and sorrow. But there is very little of the feel of a novel. The mystery is important, but it is just that: a mystery. The story isn’t really enacted, made into a narrative that can speak for itself, so that Deane keeps having to stop and tell us where we’ve got to. For the same reason, perhaps – because Deane wishes to insert the fragments of a memoir into the carrier of a plot – the narrator is not made into a character, given any real identity except as the subject of these thoughts, perceptions, adventures. If it’s his memoir, he doesn’t have to be a character as well.

Am I saying the pieces of the book don’t come together? I am saying that Deane’s heart and gifts seem to be in the details, the re-imagined pieces of the past, those times and places resurrected for their own sake. Since he is an intelligent and thoughtful writer, the plot is interesting too, thoroughly meditated if not thoroughly realised. And certainly we don’t have to get hung up on what to call the book, or whether it meets some notional criteria of what novels or memoirs are supposed to be. We need only, I think, register the difference in weight between the loved memories and the rather skeletal framework – and not ask either to do the job that only the other can do.

There are moments when the writing seems static to me, frozen into certain conventions of lyrical prose: ‘At night, from the stair window, the field was a white paradise of loneliness, and a starlit wind made the glass shake like loose, black water and the ice snore on the sill.’ ‘Raindrops, highlighted, were sliding in slant ocelli across the windowpane.’ The ocelli and the alliteration, like the snoring ice and the white paradise, surely belong in some faded poetry book. But even here, the loose, black water is very fine, and the book offers its own theory of how Yeatsian grandeur can be married to a feeling for ordinary life. The narrator’s teacher reads out a model essay about a woman setting the table, talking to her son, waiting for her husband. ‘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, cross at one another.’ The narrator is embarrassed, because his own writing at this time is full of words like cerulean, azure phantasm and implacable. But when the writer describes the boy’s memory he catches both the simplicity he admires and the heaving, unrepentant romance of wider stories: ‘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.’ And there are times when the plot functions not as a frame for memories or a metaphor for history but as the vehicle of some unsayable family disaster – the disaster most families probably know in some form or other. ‘In my novel,’ Proust wrote in a note to himself, ‘there is an ultra bourgeois family, how many invalids in it, combien de malades dedans?’ We may not all come from bourgeois families, but we can all ask similar questions. How many secrets, how many corpses, old loves, old horrors? The narrator’s father takes his two sons for a walk and tells them what he thinks of as a ghastly piece of the family’s past: he has it wrong, as it happens, the horror is quite different. The three of them return home: ‘When we came into the kitchen, my mother looked up and the whole history of his family and her family and ourselves passed over her face in one intuitive waltz of welcome and then of pain.’

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