by Belinda McKeon
Some bold claims have been made for this début novel (but when is that not the case!). Début novels come and go and whilst they can often provide an exciting read the conversion rate for these writers of promise remains pretty low. How do you know when you've found a writer who will endure and more importantly a novel that will truly stand the test of time? David Hayden of The Folio Society is a man with an eye on the longer term so when he said that this novel was the real deal I couldn't wait to get hold of a copy. Is it a truly great novel? After finishing it I'm not so sure but we'll come back to that later and why that isn't necessarily a bad thing.
McKeon herself grew up on a farm in Co. Longford before studying English and Philosophy in Dublin. It is therefore no surprise that her protagonist Mark Casey follows the same trajectory in a novel that deals with the conflict between town and country, the complications of family politics, a story of love and loss set against the background of the recent Irish financial collapse. In a prologue we meet Mark's father, Tom, who owns and works a farm in Co. Longford in the middle of Ireland. His son Mark has spent the whole summer with him, working the farm each day and we get a sense of the slight strain in their relationship. There is also something unspoken, communicated in the glances of girls in the local shop when Tom takes his infant granddaughter out with him on an errand, a look that tells us something significant has happened to this family.
It was as familiar to him by now as the sight of his own eyes in the bathroom mirror, the look that he had caught on their faces: fear and thrill and greed and pure excitement; a glimpse right into the wreckage on the side of the road.
That strain between father and son has its roots in Mark's move away from his rural upbringing. In spite of Tom having spotted in his young son the right signs, 'the solid way of looking, the air of already knowing it all. Of being born to it, and for it,' Mark's education has taken him to University in Dublin where he currently languishes, blocked in the middle of his doctoral thesis on novelist Maria Edgeworth, who lived in the village near to where he grew up, a fact which hasn't helped him to produce much more than 'some kind of nineteenth-century version of a celebrity magazine as his thesis.' We find him first in a pub garden, realising with another pint that yet another day of potential work has slipped through his grasp and that he hasn't really been working for a while.
Because there was on that desk no sign of the scuffling and flittering and leafing and scrambling it took to really get through a piece of academic work, with its footnotes and its quotations and its weavings in and out of elements from every scrap of paper touched and filed and vanished over the course of long months and years. It would be useless, Mark thought, but he would be better off there, so he drained his pint and went to say goodbye to Mossy, pushing his way through the crowd, elbows and tummies and tits and arses and pint glasses raised and pint glasses slopping.
I've quoted that extract to show how McKeon's tendency towards a meandering, list-like sentence attains almost self-parody in the early pages, something that had me frankly very worried about the rest of the book, but thankfully it is at exactly this moment that Mark spots the green-eyed beauty Joanne Lynch, decides to stay in the pub (but stop the meandering) and begins a love affair that might not reach the heights of Romeo and Juliet's but finds similar conflict in 'ancient grudge' and 'the continuance of their parents' rage.' Joanne, it appears, grew up in the same area as Mark and whilst she has no remembrance of any enmity Mark knows all too well of the dark cloud the Lynch name casts over his father's farm, Tom having been well and truly shafted by Joanne's tricky father in the past, a grudge that he maintains to this day. But that is not for these young lovers to worry over as they fall into each other in the beautifully depicted early days of a new relationship.
Joanne's work in law brings her into contact with a case involving another family dispute and this engaging sub-plot takes another look at the themes of family inheritance, responsibility and memory. But her work life will be forced to take a back seat when, after only a month or so together with Mark, she discovers that she is pregnant. This naturally throws the Lynch name back into the Casey household, re-inflaming former tensions, but it is a tragedy yet to happen that will create that unease we sensed in the novel's prologue. McKeon is very even handed in her handling of plot and characters, each is given due time and focus and she has that non-judgemental empathy that allows the reader to make up their own minds and reminded me of reading Kent Haruf's superb novels Plainsong and Eventide. Even the temptation to evoke a rural Irish idyll is nicely avoided, not simply by depicting the realities of Irish farming in the midst of financial meltdown but by hinting at perils behind every farmhouse door - 'Inside those houses on those hills were people, and people made everything difficult; tripped over one another and tripped one another up.' There is at least one moment however which feels like a pulled punch. In a novel about the tensions between father and son it is a strange decision to describe the mechanics of their inevitable showdown rather than to write the actual row. With so much kinetic energy built up, so much that had remained unsaid, this reader felt a little cheated at not being able to hear the actual blows traded.
As well as giving her characters room and not dominating too much as an author McKeon also shows strengths in description and humour. A frosted tractor window that looks like it's not 'one pane of glass but a thousand tiny chips, held together for one last moment within the square of the frame.' isn't just a nice turn of phrase but a description that hints at the fragilities contained within the novel. And the way in which Mark's mother contemplates the sex antics of the younger generation 'with a mixture of envy and exhaustion' is just perfect. All of this is why a novel that felt good rather than great doesn't worry me at all. I've read plenty of 'outstanding' débuts from authors who disappointed with their next book (and even with the one after that if I bothered) but I feel very encouraged by the lack of pyrotechnics in this début, charmed instead by some subtle characterisation, touched by the sensitive handling of its topics and eager to know what McKeon might produce next. Go on, don't let me down...