miércoles, 19 de octubre de 2011

A Northern Ireland family - Reading In The Dark by Seamus Deane

Reading In The Dark is a first person account of an extraordinary childhood. On the surface, the family seems to be stable enough. They are Catholics and the novel’s narrator is about half way along his parents´ progeny. Nothing special there...

They are not rich, and apparently not poor. They get by. The lad explores the neighbourhood, makes friends, starts school. Eventually he proves to be quite academic and he clearly goes from personal success to further personal success.

But all the time there’s something in the past that labels him. There are people who call him strange names, accuse him of things he hasn’t done. He does not understand, but feels the consequences. Life can be complicated when you’re born to a Catholic family in Northern Ireland.

The boy grows up in the 1950s and 1960s. Via short, dated chapters, arranged chronologically and starting in February 1945, we able to build and perhaps experience the lad’s world. We share the boy’s new experience, feel the changes in his life and body as he does. But there is always something unsaid, intangible, but undoubtedly real and of consequence. Everyone seems to know something, but he has little idea what it all means.

Mother and father remain reticent. Relatives and acquaintances allude to Eddie, the boy’s uncle, who is not around any more. Clearly Eddie died in strange circumstances. But in the Northern Ireland of the 1950s, you have to be careful what you say, when you speak and whom you mix with. Just being seen talking to Sergeant Burke, the policeman, can result in your being labelled a traitor, a collaborator, or worse.

The boy’s relationship with the Church and its clergy is both fascinating and surreal. There are moments of humour, times of fear, often juxtaposed. There’s a maths teacher whose class rules are so complex that any response seems punishable. Serves them right… It seems that whatever contribution an individual might make has the potential to render that person in need of strokes, but the ground rules demand that no-one may opt out.

It’s the same in the wider society. When you’re a Catholic in Northern Ireland – and perhaps if you are not! – there are no fences you can sit on. Whatever you do it will be wrong. There are enemies on both sides of every fence, so wherever you climb down, beware. Tread carefully, know your place, stay on your guard. But what if, like our young lad, you don’t know what to beware of?

Slowly, however, the real truth behind Uncle Eddie’s fate emerges. It’s only then that the growing boy, and indeed the reader, realises just how complicated – and vindictive – life can be.

Reading In The Dark is a highly poetic novel. The scenes are vivid, beautifully portrayed. They are short, but each adds its own new detail to the bigger story of how a family has learned to cope with its own chequered past. Those who don’t know the mistakes of history are perhaps doomed to repeat them. Those misled by untruth are not necessarily liars when they restate it. But complicating the past probably confuses the present and disturbs the future. Seamus Deane’s novel, Reading In The Dark, is a vivid and moving portrait of a family troubled by a past it dare not admit.

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