Fiction – paperback; Abacus; 247 pages; 1990.
I have Sinead Gleeson and regular commenter Tony S. to thank for my introduction to the late Molly Keane. Both suggested I try the Irish writer when I was casting about for female authors to read early last year. Two of her novels, Time After Time (first published in 1983) and the Booker shortlisted Good Behaviour, were promptly added to my wishlist.
Fast forward 15 months, and I finally got to read my first Keane a couple of weeks ago. And boy, was it worth the wait.
Time After Time is a gorgeously fun novel that seems frothy and lighthearted on the surface, but underneath there’s a very dark heart forging its own steady rhythm. It’s not immediately obvious but this is a story about cruelty and the nasty things people do to each other.
It’s set in a beautiful but crumbling mansion in Southern Ireland where four elderly siblings reside. Each of them is eccentric, fiercely independent and set in their own ways. The only things they have in common is their love of animals — each fusses over their own cat or dog, treating them like substitute children — and their treasured memories of their darling Mummie. There’s one-eyed Jasper, who rules the kitchen, and his three ridiculously named sisters, April, May and Baby June.
April, the only one to have married, is now widowed but still bangs on about her late husband, Colonel Grange-Gorman, and is somewhat obsessed with preserving her looks and her figure. She’s stone deaf so any conversation with her is full of misunderstandings, making her ripe for comedic effect.
May is the one obsessed by handicrafts — she’s been president of the Flower Arrangers’ Guild for years and instructs members of the Irish Countrywomen’s Association in the art of picture-making from scraps of tweed, wool and sprigs of heather — despite the fact she was born with only half a finger and a thumb on one hand.
Baby June is the hard grafter, the one who runs the farm with the help of a local Catholic boy, and is an accomplished horsewoman, who achieved much success in point-to-points when she was younger but now considers herself too old to ride.
(That’s all of them pictured above — I simply love this cover, because it depicts each chacracter perfectly, right down to the types of clothes they are wearing as described by Keane in the text.)
Together the Swift siblings rub each other the wrong way. Meal times are fraught with petty squabbles and half-imagined slights. The sisters belittle each other in order to compensate for their own failings, while Jasper seeks refuge in his closely guarded friendship with a local monk.
Into this mêlée comes cousin Leda, who arrives unannounced for a short stay. Now elderly, fat, blind and widowed, Leda was once a very beautiful young half-Jewish girl with whom the Swifts lost contact during the Second World War. Indeed, the family believed she had most likely died in a concentration camp. Her visit is but the first in a string of surprises that shakes each of the siblings to the core and leaves them all wishing she really had died in the Holocaust…
I told you there was a dark heart to it.
Time After Time is a black comedy filled with the type of people you’d never want to meet in real life. I loved every minute of it and can only imagine that Good Behaviour will dish out more of the same.