Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 221 pages; 2009.
Deirdre Madden‘s Molly Fox’s Birthday has recently been shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction 2009. I had mistakenly thought it was a story about a little girl’s birthday, but the title is deceptive: the Molly Fox named here is a thirty-something woman who never celebrates her birthday and what’s more we never get to meet her. Instead we come to learn of her complex personality through the eyes of her long-time friend, who narrates the story in a cool, understated manner.
This is one of those mellow, beguiling reads that sneaks up on you, worms its way into your conscience and bathes you in a kind of gentle light. I found it almost impossible to put down and read it at every opportunity: on the tube, in my lunch hour, at home curled up in bed. And when I got closer to the final pages I tried to draw it out because I simply didn’t want it to end.
And yet, if I am to explain what Molly Fox’s Birthday is about, I find it difficult to describe. There is no straightforward narrative. It’s written from the point of view of one woman, a successful playwright, recalling her relationship with Molly Fox, an actor regarded as “one of the finest of her generation” — how they met, worked together and became firm friends — and it effortlessly switches from the present to the past and back again, often within a matter of pages, in tune with the narrator’s memories.
The narrator also thinks about her friendship with Belfast-born Andrew, a now-famous art historian, whom she met at university, and her older brother, Tom, a Catholic priest.
And all this is done over the course of a couple of days while she stays in Molly’s house in Dublin — a small redbrick Victorian house with “immense charm” — while Molly is away performing in New York. When she remembers that it is Molly’s birthday she contemplates much about her dear friend, including why she never celebrates her birthday and why she is so protective of her younger brother, an alcoholic prone to depression.
This is a book about friendship: how tough it can be to accept flaws and foibles; how our relationships can be plagued by petty jealousies and secrets; and how important it is to our lives. But Molly Fox’s Birthday is also a book about acting: how we play certain roles at certain times of our lives, and show different facets of our personality to different people. It’s also about learning to accept the past in order to move into the future. It’s a wonderful, atmospheric book and it will be interesting to see whether it wins the Orange Prize when it is announced early next month.