Author, Book review, Deirdre Madden, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Birds of the Innocent Wood’ by Deirdre Madden

Fiction – paperback; Faber & Faber; 164 pages; 2014.

Deirdre Madden’s The Birds of the Innocent Wood, first published in 1988, is a mysterious, opaque tale about dark family secrets and strained relationships spanning two generations.

It reads a bit like a thriller, helped by a few fast-paced early chapters, before settling into an intriguing if downbeat story where nothing is fully spelt out — or resolved. It’s even hard to know what era this book is set in because there is a timeless quality to everything about it, and Madden’s adoption of a third-person omniscient narrator lends the entire novel the feel of a fairy tale or fable.

An orphan’s tale

Set in rural Ireland, it focuses on Jane, who is orphaned as a toddler when her parents die in a house fire. Taken in by an aunt who does not want her, she’s sent to a convent boarding school, where she delights in telling others of her terrible loss to gain sympathy.

Every time she told her story she felt as if she was leading the unsuspecting children to a vast black pit, and when she had taken them right to the edge, she would suddenly draw back and abandon them there. She craved their pity and their sense of horror; and at the same time she utterly despised the other little girls for allowing her to induce these feelings in them. It was her tragedy, and she was never so weak as to cry for the loss of her parents.

When she finishes school, friendless and isolated, she meets James, a local farmer, and marries him to ward off the loneliness. She moves to his farm, where he lives with his widowed father and their farmhand, Gerald, but never feels that she truly belongs. She takes against their neighbour, Ellen, whom she feels is too close to her husband, even though Ellen eventually marries Gerald.

Jane’s story is interleaved with that of her teenage twin daughters, Catherine and Sarah, who are both cold and odd and just as sociopathic as their mother. The twins, however, are vastly different from each other. Catherine desperately wants to become a nun, while Sarah sets her heart on the local boy, Peter, who is Ellen and Gerald’s son.

As the twins plot against each other for reasons that are never fully explained, there are hints of family secrets and untold histories, but again nothing is obvious or clear-cut. Madden grants her readers the intelligence to figure it out for themselves, something her compatriot (and my favourite writer) Jennifer Johnston also does with aplomb.

Carefully controlled prose

Putting aside the plot, and even the characterisation, both of which are excellent, it’s the writing and the mood of the story that makes this novel such an engaging read. Its bleakness and gloomy outlook are only matched by the restrained, carefully controlled prose.

And Madden’s clever use of avian imagery, whether crows being shot out of trees, songbirds announcing the arrival of dawn or nests being discovered in unlikely places, act as metaphors and signifiers of events going on in the characters often sad and troubled lives.

Despite the fact it comes in at under 170 densely written pages, there’s a lot to unpack in this one.

The Birds of the Innocent Wood won a Somerset Maugham Award in 1989. These awards are for writers under the age of 30 and there are normally multiple winners each year.

Simon from Stuck in a Book has also reviewed it.

Deirdre Madden is from County Antrim in Northern Ireland and has eight novels (and a handful of children’s books)  to her name. I’ve read four of her novels and regard her as one of my favourite authors.

I read this book as part of Cathy’s #ReadingIrelandMonth23. You can find out more about this annual blog event at Cathy’s blog 746 Books.

Author, Book review, Deirdre Madden, Faber and Faber, Fiction, literary fiction, Northern Ireland, Publisher, Setting

‘Hidden Symptoms’ by Deirdre Madden


Fiction – paperback; Faber & Faber; 144 pages; 2014.

In recent years, Deirdre Madden has become one of my favourite writers. She has 10 novels to her name, but I’ve only reviewed three of them — One by One in the Darkness (published in 1996), Molly Fox’s Birthday (2008) and Time Present and Time Past (2013) — which means I have many years of reading pleasure ahead of me if I space them out accordingly.

Her debut novel, Hidden Symptoms,  first published in 1986, is a densely constructed story about a trio of characters living in Belfast during The Troubles.

It revolves around university student Theresa, a devout Catholic, whose faith is tested by the murder of her twin brother, whose badly mutilated body was found dumped on a patch of waste ground near the city centre several years earlier, the result of sectarian violence.

Love and violence

But the story is just as much about the faith — and the trust — placed in friendships, for Theresa spends most of her time with Robert, a writer and frustrated intellectual, who aspires to better things and despises his sister’s sheltered suburban life, and Robert’s girlfriend, Kathy, a fellow student, who discovers that the father she thought had died when she was a baby is actually living in London with his new young family.

The background to these family dramas — “people marrying, mating and mixing genes” —  is Belfast in the 1980s, a time of great conflict between paramilitary forces, British state security forces and political activists. Yet despite the violence, Theresa views it as “normal” because, as she explains early on in the novel, “she had watched it [Belfast] sink since her childhood from ‘normality’ to its present state”.

What she cannot come to terms with, however, is knowing that someone in the city killed her brother purely because of his religion (he was not known to be a member of any paramilitary organisation). She is plagued by pain, distress and paranoia:

… she arrived too early for an arranged meeting with Kathy in a city-centre pub. She bought a drink and while she waited she looked around at the other customers, the majority of whom were men, until slowly the thought of the man who had killed her brother crept back into her mind. Those men who were laughing in the corner; that man with reddish hair and big, rough hands who was drinking alone; even the white-coated barman, cutting wedges of lemon for gin-and-tonics: any one of them might have done it. She gazed at each of them in turn and thought in cold fright: “Is he the one? Did he do it? Is he the man who murdered Francis?”

The political and religious divide

Admittedly, Theresa is not a terribly likeable person — she’s (understandably) bitter and angry, and all her conversations tend towards the argumentative, particularly where politics is concerned. Her relationship with Robert, initiated in a cafe when she roundly criticises and condemns a piece about Irish literature that he wrote in a magazine, is fraught from the outset but it soon descends into irreconcilable differences because their views on politics and religion are so polarised.

And yet despite her fierce talk and hard-held opinions, there’s a fragility about Theresa that is hard to ignore. Her grief, at times, is palpable, and it is to Madden’s credit that it never descends into maudlin self-pity or sentimentality.

Hidden Symptoms is a short novel — indeed, it was originally published in Faber’s First Fictions anthology where it was awarded the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature in 1987 — but it’s so tightly written it would take an age to unpick all the issues and themes it contains. As a dark exploration of bereavement, faith, love, loyalty and violence, you would be hard-pressed to find a book more powerful — or intelligent.

Author, Book review, Deirdre Madden, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Setting

‘Time Present and Time Past’ by Deirdre Madden


Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 240 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I’m not surprised Faber and Faber didn’t bother writing a blurb to put on the back of this handsome edition of Deirdre Madden’s Time Present and Time Past — it would be a tricky task to “market” this extraordinary novel in any meaningful way in just a couple of short press-friendly paragraphs.

Indeed, I’m sure that whatever I say in this review will not do justice to this story, which revolves around the domestic but addresses big themes relating to time and memory and family history. I picked it up expecting to read just a chapter or two, and before I knew it I was two-thirds finished and decided it was just so lovely and enjoyable that I had to stay at home to finish the whole thing in one greedy gulp.

A pair of siblings

Set in Dublin during the good times before the economic crash turned the country upside down, it focuses on a pair of 40-something siblings — Fintan Buckley and his younger sister Martina.

Fintan, a congenial, easy-going man, is a legal adviser who is happily married to childhood sweetheart Colette with whom he has two sons, Robert and Niall, both at university, and a seven-year-old daughter, Lucy.

Martina, a renowned beauty who is headstrong and forthright, runs her own upmarket dress shop after having enjoyed a successful fashion career in London. She returned to Dublin about a decade ago and now lives with her aged aunt.

On the surface, Fintan and Martina lead comfortable middle-class lives, which not even their domineering and opinionated mother can ruin. But scratch a little deeper and there is more going on. For Fintan, it is an unknown and untapped desire to reconnect with his childhood past, for Martina it is the need to deal with a traumatic event from her time in London.

Both these threads eventually come together, but in the process, Madden interleaves lots of family history — how Fintan and Colette met, for example — to show how the bonds of friendship and family can not only wax and wane over time but form our own personal narratives.

Memory and time

But Time Past and Time Present isn’t a straightforward “cosy” domestic story. As the title suggests, it explores notions of time and looks at how memory can shift and change shape with the ticking of the clock.

Part of the novel focuses on Fintan’s inner life in which he begins to experience brief moments of altered states of consciousness that take him out of linear time and make him more open to the notion of an “immense pathos in life”. In one instance he has an out-of-body experience during a meeting with his personal assistant — and yet no one notices any change in him. Appearances, as they say, can be deceptive.

This theme is further explored by Fintan’s emerging interest in early photography and his realisation that he tends to

think of the past as profoundly different to the present, which it was, but not in the ways he expected; so that he had been surprised by Rob’s remark of a week ago on a cold day of torrential rain, when Fintan had found him in the hall gloomily sluicing water off his leather jacket and flapping his black umbrella: ‘They would have had weather like this during the Famine. Do you ever think about that, Dad? Rain like this and rotten potatoes.’

Not much plot

The most interesting thing about this book is that not much happens in it and yet I found myself getting caught up in the Buckley’s lives despite the complete absence of drama — this is definitely not a soap opera.

Perhaps the secret is two-fold: it’s all written in the present tense, which creates a sense of immediacy, and by focusing solely on ordinary people it’s easy to identify with the characters, all of whom are genuinely likeable and well-meaning. Indeed, I felt as if I actually knew these characters they seemed so recognisable to people I know and love.

Indeed, Madden has crafted a hugely enjoyable tale about ordinary lives being quietly led and the importance of family history in shaping who we are and who we want to be. It is understated and unsentimental, yet manages to pack an emotional punch.

Time Past and Time Present has been shortlisted for this year’s Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year award, which will be announced on 28 May.

Author, Book review, Deirdre Madden, Faber and Faber, Fiction, literary fiction, Northern Ireland, Publisher, Setting

‘One by One in the Darkness’ by Deirdre Madden


Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 181 pages; 1997.

Many of you may be familiar with Deirdre Madden’s most recent novel, Molly Fox’s Birthday, which was shortlisted for last year’s Orange Prize. But that was not the first of Madden’s novels to be shortlisted: One by One in the Darkness, penned 13 years ago, was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 1997 (losing out to Anne Michael’s Fugitive Pieces).

If you can forgive the horrendous cover art of my edition (see above), this is a perfect introduction to both Madden’s work (it’s her fifth novel) and how the religious and political turmoil of Northern Ireland had long-lasting impacts on normal, hard-working rural families inadvertently caught up in the conflict.

Return home 

The story is set in the space of one week in the early 1990s (the blurb suggests that it is before the start of the IRA ceasefire in 1994, but I could not find an actual date anywhere in the text). Cate Quinn, a journalist for a London-based fashion magazine, returns home to her family in County Derry to break some news she knows will be upsetting to those she loves, in particular her widowed mother.

This narrative is undercut by the story of Cate’s staunchly Catholic upbringing in the 1960s and 1970s, on a farm near Slieve Gallion, with her older sister, Helen, and younger sister, Sally.

These flashbacks, told in alternate chapters, serve to demonstrate how their childhoods, which should have been happy and carefree, were tainted by the political violence and religious prejudices of the time. There’s a real sense of disbelief and confusion when, for instance, a civil rights march in Derry turns violent, and  “now all the talk at home was about civil rights, and how things would have to change”.

Equally, a trip to the Antrim coast, when they have to drive through Protestant enclaves bedecked with Union Jacks and red, white and blue bunting, puzzles them.

They thought the Orange arches which spanned the roads in the towns were ugly, and creepy, too, with their strange symbols: a ladder, a set square and compass, a five-pointed star. They knew that they weren’t supposed to be able to understand what these things meant; and they knew, too, without having to be told that the motto painted on the arches: ‘Welcome here, Brethren!’ didn’t include the Quinn family.

But this is early days, and later, when soldiers begin turning up on their doorstep, interrogating them and lifting their uncles who live on a neighbouring property, it’s clear that the world outside their “few fields and houses” has encroached on their day-to-day existence.

Family ties

This novel is largely a study of relationships: there are family tensions at work on almost every page, and Madden expertly captures the unspoken anxieties between people without spelling everything out. Indeed, the circumstances revolving around the death of Cate’s father are never fully explained until the closing chapters of the book, and it is only when you realise what has happened, and how it has happened, that the tremendous force of Madden’s storytelling abilities comes into play.

But One by One in the Darkness is also an astute look at the “idea of home” and how each character chooses to identify with Northern Ireland.

Madden cleverly uses the dual narrative to show how the sister’s current lives have been shaped by events of the past: Cate, has reinvented herself in London and changed the spelling of her name from Kate to Cate to sound “less Irish”; Helen, now a criminal lawyer based in Belfast, has rejected religion and is trying to atone for “past wrongs that could never be righted”; and Sally, a teacher, has never left the local area, although she feels trapped and dreams of escape.

But there’s a dichotomy at work here, because while all three sisters are occasionally ashamed of their country, they are also fiercely loyal to it, as the following quotes from Sally demonstrate:

“If it wasn’t for Mammy, I’d leave tomorrow. I can’t stand being in Northern Ireland. All that guff about it being a great wee place, and the people being so friendly. I feel ashamed for having gone along with that; other people were being killed the way Daddy was, and I was one of the ones saying, ‘There’s more to Northern Ireland than shooting and bombing’.”

And then, almost in the same breath, she adds:

I remember being on holiday in Italy once, and loving it there until I saw this two-day-old English newspaper in a kiosk, with a report on the front page about a car bomb having exploded in Belfast. All at once, I wanted to be there. I felt guilty for not being at home, not that it would have made the slightest bit of difference. I mean, apart from the odd holiday I’ve been here right through the Troubles, and it hasn’t made a blind bit of difference to anything. There hasn’t been so much as a shot less fired because of me, but it would have made a difference if I hadn’t been here, it would have made a difference to me. I can’t explain it any better than that.

If there’s any fault to be had with this novel, it is that the writing sometimes feels forced and the dialogue unnatural. And Cate’s news, which is disguised as a terrible secret (but is easily guessed), is revealed too soon, halting the momentum of that particular narrative thread.

But on the whole, this is a superb look at Northern Ireland’s troubled history from a female perspective.

Author, Book review, Deirdre Madden, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Molly Fox’s Birthday’ by Deirdre Madden


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 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.