We talked some time ago about books having that little window of publicity before they may pass us readers by, and The Truth About Love by Josephine Hart, published by Virago in early 2009, did sail right on by without my noticing. It was only a half-mention somewhere that had me reading this novel a few months ago and perhaps that all begs the question, why so long before any thoughts have appeared on here?
The Truth About Love has proved to be a book that has revealed its strengths very discreetly because I'm editing this piece two months after I first wrote it and knowing full well that something was eluding me about the novel, but equally confident that the final piece of the jigsaw would pop up somewhere.
Misleadingly I do still have this nostalgic image of Ireland as a wistfully green and pleasant place despite all the years of violence that I have grown up absorbing by osmosis and still reluctantly associate with the country; something delicate, intrinsically soulful, beautiful and fragile about it. Something easily broken, and much less easily put back together, and whilst the troubles are certainly evident in The Truth About Love it is in an oblique and understated way and from a different perspective.
'After a tragedy many survivors are lost ' says one of Josephine Hart's characters and the full import of that will become apparent.
The book opens with a death and the suggestion that Tom and Sissy O'Hara's son has been making a rocket in the garden shed belies the nature of his injuries when he is caught in the blast and, to put it bluntly, scattered to the four corners of the garden. Clearly he is working on something far more sinister. It is the son on his way to hospital and certain death who gets first pickings at the first-person narrative. Grief at this unnamed son's loss and how it impacts on the each member of the family and the wider community will permeate the rest of the book.
That grief may well be symbolic of a nation's grief too. A grief that when walled up and enclosed spills out around the sides and seeps through the cracks, as Josephine Hart cleverly hands the narrative baton from one character to the next thus allowing successive generations to take up the story-telling and lead it into the future. It's like reading a contemporary and written form of the ancient craft of oral story-telling which for some reason sits comfortably with all my pre-conceived notions and expectations of literary Ireland if there can be such a mixed up thing. Now two months after first writing that I read Ann Enright's introduction to The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story and subsequently also in The Guardian here, (accompanied by the usual excoriatingly brutal Graun comments) and realise that I am on the right track.
'...the short story has flourished in those cultures where older, usually oral forms are met head on with the challenge of new literary forms ... the story is born from the fragmentation of old certainties and the absence of any new ones...'
The Truth About Love may not be a short story but I think the same principles will pass muster in this context and we'll just have to hope no Guardian commenters stray over here.
Looking on as the all-seeing observer, who moves on the periphery of Josephine Hart's fictional community, is writer Thomas Middlehoff, 'the German' who potentially carries the unspoken burden of his own nation's post-war guilt on his shoulders and into the midst of this sorrow.
Detached, seemingly unemotional but a pragmatist, and a sensitive one at that.
'My father said there were four things a man or a nation could do with their history, which is after all, their collective memory... a nation could forget, exploit, obscure or live with its history.'
As Tom and his children, Olivia and Daragh, though grieving themselves, pull together to try and contain Sissy's grief at the loss of her son, (and we know she has already lost a daughter,) it's clear they cannot stem the tide of her mental anguish. Tom and Olivia approach Sissy to tell her the awful truth about her son's death from which they have tried to shield her and Tom says to his daughter,
'We'd better face it now Olivia. There is no waiting now. No way out of this one, is there Olivia? Listen child, whatever you're about to see - after all you've seen today - know it can be survived.'
For me it was the rawness and ultimate irresolution of a mother's mourning that seared its mark throughout this book, and it was the debate about John McGahern's The Barracks over on KevinfromCanada, and the trend identified by commenters there that finally helped me to crystallize my thoughts on The Truth About Love....
' Meanwhile, the mothers and wives pick up the pieces, mourn and raise the next generation of “heroes”.'
The suggestion that traditionally, in reality and in much Irish fiction, it is the women who carry the burden and soldier on, yet in Josephine Hart's novel that trend is completely and utterly subverted. How can anyone possibly 'recover' from the loss of a child under any circumstances let alone such brutal ones, and the son's death seemed to become a form of universal allegory for all those individual mournings. Devastated and unhinged there is no consolation capable of assuaging Sissy's grief, and Josephine Hart's delineation of this is beautifully and deeply perceptive. But then thinking back to that conversation between father and daughter, there it is... that burden subtly still being passed down to her ... this is our expectation of you as a woman.
So, having in my usual fashion written this and then nipped to Amazon to steal the cover image (sorry, but sometimes true) I was very surprised to discover several one and two star reviews, some finding the narrative unconvincing, the dialogue clunky, skims over the facts etc. No, no and thrice no I found myself muttering and all proving there's nowt so different as readers, because there was me weeping and loving every finely nuanced word, and how much this book has continued to give me months after I first read it.
The wisest of those words perhaps uttered by the Bishop, Thomas Middlehoff's unlikely regular chess opponent, famed for being a bit of a talker ...
'His conversational ship has left port. It will take time to anchor him again...'
But once anchored some moments of deep lucidity emerge from the Bishop and herein perhaps lies one answer to so much endless tragedy,
'There's a world of difference between a free nation building its soul on the tales of men who fought hard and long against a ruthless oppressor and breaking young minds with the weight of old sadnesses and burdening young shoulders with an unpayable debt to ghosts.'
Much to think about here, a book that will bear a re-read very soon and if you've read it I'd love to know your thoughts too.