Fiction – paperback; Virago Press; 256 pages; 2009.
I first read Josephine Hart, the Irish-born British writer, in the early 1990s. Her first two novels, Damage and Sin, were page-turners of the highest order. But I never got around to reading any of her later work. When I stumbled upon the last novel she wrote — The Truth About Love — in a charity shop a couple of weeks ago for the princely sum of £1.99 it seemed an excellent opportunity to reacquaint myself with her writing.
A story about memory
Despite the somewhat soppy title, The Truth About Love is not romantic fiction. This is a powerful story about history, guilt and trying to move on in a world that never forgets. No surprise then that the two central figures in the book are German and Irish — one of whom is trying to forget the past; the other for whom history is everything.
The story opens in rather spectacular style when we are thrust into the disorientating thoughts of someone dying — “Get a priest and a doctor! Quickly! Quickly! Get a priest! Confession! Get priest first!” The entire first chapter is like this — all confusion and people shouting things at one another with only little snippets of information being revealed. I initially thought it was set somewhere on the battlefields of the First World War, only to discover it was somewhere in rural Ireland in 1962 — and later I was even more astonished to discover that it was a teenage boy who had been fatally wounded in an unexplained explosion in his family’s back garden.
That explosion — and death — haunts the O’Hara family for the entire novel. The mother, Sissy, never quite recovers from the loss of her son, despite her husband’s efforts to comfort and console her. And matters are only made worse when the local community begins to circulate rumours that the boy may have been making explosives for the IRA — although the family claim he was merely making a rocket.
While this family tragedy shapes the core of the novel, Hart manages to place it in a wider context by using it as a metaphor for the great tragedies of the first half of the 20th century — specifically the Nazi concentration camps of the Second World War, and the Irish War of Independence, where sometimes families were pitted against other families, and hundreds of men and women died.
There’s a very telling conversation quite early on in the novel, when Tom O’Hara, the grieving father, approaches his German neighbour about the possibility of buying a gate from him. The gate, imported from Germany, has a helmet on it and was much admired by Tom’s son who called it “the warrior’s gate”. Tom wants to put it in the back entrance to his garden as a kind of memorial, but his neighbour is reluctant to part with it. He does, however, promise to consider the idea.
“[…] thank you about the gate. Considering it, at least. Like I said, you’ve been a gentleman to me. I won’t forget.”
“You’re Irish, Mr O’Hara. Forgetfulness is not possible.”
“And you’re German, Mr Middlehoff. No doubt memory is a burden.”
Over the course of the novel this theme recurs over and over, like a mantra, as it infuses each character’s outlook and actions.
A story about Ireland
Not a great deal happens in the novel — it’s more character driven than plot led — but it has multiple narrators who take up the story in turn. Through this, we learn of Mrs O’Hara’s inability to get over her loss (in her own words) and of Mr Middlehoff’s exile and the strange love affairs he conducts when he thinks no one is looking. And, of course, we learn about his past and how he views the country where he has exiled himself, a kind of outsider’s view of Ireland in the 1960s.
Ireland’s more recent tragic history — especially the IRA’s attacks on mainland Britain in the 1970s and 80s — is taken up by the O’Hara’s daughter, Olivia, who leaves the country for England, where she marries and has children. Her first-person narrative, which begins somewhere around page 150, looks back over the course of three decades and tells the story not only of Ireland, but of her family’s grief and Mr Middlehoff’s tangled past from a different perspective.
An intense read
The Truth About Love is by no means an easy read — and it is somewhat of a departure from the author’s earlier work. But there’s something about the prose — fiery and elegant by turns — and her refusal to fill in all the gaps, so that the reader must make up their own mind about certain things, that reminds me very much of the best of Jennifer Johnston’s work.
It’s a very intense story, almost too intense, so that whenever I read it I began to feel claustrophobic. But with that intensity comes a power and an intelligence that marks this book as something rather special. Sadly, it was Hart’s last novel: she died from cancer in June last year.