Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 228 pages; 2002.
Annie Dunne is Sebastian Barry‘s second novel. And what a truly moving, gentle, eloquent read it is.
Having read Barry’s two latter novels — the brilliant A Long Long Way (which, incidentally, features characters introduced in Annie Dunne) and the slightly flawed The Secret Scripture — I had high expectations for this one. I wasn’t disappointed.
The story is pretty much devoid of plot. In fact, not much happens in the book at all. It’s essentially the inner monologue of a spinster, the 59-year-old Annie Dunne of the title, who shares a house with her slightly older cousin, Sarah Cullen, and spends one summer looking after her nephew’s two young children. The unnamed children, a four-year-old boy and a six-year-old girl, bring a new dimension to Annie’s sheltered and relatively lonely life. Essentially, they are a metaphor for new beginnings, but can Annie let go of her troubled past to start afresh with two youngsters in her charge?
This probably sounds like a dull premise for a novel, and to be honest, I did wonder whether the story was going to go anywhere. But Barry has such a way with words — he’s a terrrific prose writer — that it doesn’t really matter. This is the type of writing that you savour. It’s completely cliché free and every sentence has a fresh, new wonder to it. It’s like looking at the world from a different angle, one you’ve never thought to consider before. For instance, who would ever think to compare laughter to jam-making?
Sarah laughs. Her laugh is thick and chesty, like blackberries beginning to bubble in the big pot, when we are making preserves in the autumn.
The entire novel is littered with sentences like this, making it a joy to read.
And somehow, because Barry captures the minutiae of daily life so eloquently, the story sings in such a way you want to keep reading.
Of course, I’m exagerrating to say that nothing happens, because of course lots of things happen, but they are small incidents in the scheme of things. It’s set in 1959, a period of great change in rural Ireland, as horse and carts became replaced by motor cars, and country lanes were transformed by tarmac, and where the once ruling Anglo-Protestant classes were readjusting to life under Home Rule. But it’s Annie’s inner turmoil that gives the story the impetus to make the reader keep reading on.
Annie is a product of her time. A woman nearing 60 who has never married, never had children, not because she never wanted to, but because the opportunity never presented itself. There is, however, the little matter of her deformity — a hunchback caused by polio. It’s an affliction that has scarred her psychologically, but it has also tormented her in the sense she has always been an outcast.
Never one to fit in socially, she’s developed a rich inner life, and it’s her interior monologue, her thoughts, both good and bad, ugly and unflinching, which make up the prose of this book. It’s written in the present tense so there’s an immediacey to it. Much of what she thinks in the present is shaped by the past, and despite her sometimes cruel thoughts and her quick temper, this is a woman struggling to better herself despite her painful history. What shines through is her fierce intelligence, but also her harsh inner critic, the one that tells her to stop babbling and saying things she shouldn’t be saying.
It is Annie’s struggle with jealousy and rage that marks her out as peculiarly human. She is constantly misunderstood by those around her. And it is that dichotomy between what Annie feels inside and the way her actions are interpreted by others which provides the tension — and the heart-breaking emotion — that makes this novel a truly special one.
Yes, it’s occasionally maudlin and melancholy, but Annie Dunne also has quiet moments of joy and happiness. There is beauty in nature here, too, and a love for a simple way of life that no longer exists. I expect this novel, which has now earned Sebastian Barry a place on my list of favourite writers, will stay with me for quite a long time to come.