I was struck by the parallels between Ireland in the 1950s and life in Eire as it is today. In the novel Eilish Lacey has to leave Enniscorthy to find work in New York and sixty years later many Irish people are again leaving their homes and looking for employment abroad.
In many ways this is a novel of the different journeys made by Eilish. There is the transatlantic crossing made under stormy conditions when she is even locked out of the bathroom and is reduced to vomiting in her cabin. She travels away from her family and her roots, realising as she does so that her older sister, Rose, has sacrificed her own future so that Eilish can have the opportunity to better herself. In Brooklyn she overcomes homesickness by studying bookkeeping at evening classes in order to improve her prospects. She also meets, and falls in love with, Tony, a young Italian. However, when a sudden death in the family necessitates her return to her home town she learns the pain of grief and finally has to make a choice so difficult that she tries to ‘imagine nothing more’.
The writer is sympathetic to his heroine but conveys her faults as well as her good points. When she goes to the dance in the church hall with Dolores, the newest resident of Mrs Kehoe’s boarding house, the other girl informs her that she is the only fellow lodger who is not a bitch, yet Eilish makes a point of ditching her once she has met Tony and spent the evening with him.
Brooklyn is beautifully imagined by Tóibín and evoked from Eilish’s perspective. Dislocation is one of its main themes, but through this trope the protagonist is able to mature into an independent young woman. Despite this, small town Ireland is never far away; whether in her Brooklyn boarding house, peopled by other émigrés or those of Irish descent; at the dances run by her local church; and finally the options open to her when she returns to Enniscorthy. The novel is deftly written. We share Eilish’s experiences and feelings, urging her to follow her heart, although we know that there will be those that suffer and others that gain in the long run. I didn’t want to put it down, but neither did I want to reach the last page.
More than thirty years ago I was an avid reader of Margaret Drabble novels, but have neglected her of late. We’ve both grown older and the contents of her earlier novels, written as a young woman, have been displaced by the concerns of older women.
Candida Wilton, the sometime narrator of The Seven Sisters is adjusting to life in London as a recent divorcée. Not only is she getting to grips with life as a newly single woman, but she has also bought herself a ‘modern laptop machine’ into which she regularly types her diary.
Moving to Ladbroke Grove from rural Suffolk involves her in joining the health club that has replaced the evening classes where she had started to study Virgil. She gathers up friends in her new neighbourhood and adds them to those from her schooldays and her time in Suffolk as wife to the headmaster of a boarding school. She very slowly grows in confidence and eventually (after a windfall) organises a trip to Tunis and Italy to retrace Aeneas’s steps in the Aenied. Her novel switches from confessional diary through third person narration of the journey to the Mediterranean, and then switches abruptly to a section narrated by her eldest daughter. We learn later that this is Candida herself, trying to focalise her own life (and fictitious death) through her daughter’s eyes. The final section of the novel returns to the diary form as the narrator attempts self –analysis using the perspective of her daughter, Ellen.
This novel should be required reading for all women of a certain age. Drabble’s narrator is a deft observer of the life around her, but more than that, she is a reminder that we are never too old. Candida manages to adapt to life as a divorced older woman, to (partly) come to grips with modern technology, she keeps fit at her health club, makes new friendships and travels abroad. She starts to rebuild relationships with her adult daughters and with men of her own age and ends on an optimistic stance: ‘I am filled with expectation.’ She has travelled a long way from the hesitant woman who stated on the book’s first page that ‘Nothing much happens to me now, nor ever will again.’
Sarah Waters moves away from lesbian literature for this novel, in which she assumes a male persona, writing as Dr Faraday, a Midlands GP, in the period between the end of World War II and the setting up of the National Health Service. It’s difficult to place this latest work in any particular genre as it fits several: love story, ghost story, gothic novel or state of Britain tale meditating on the changes to class and society.
The research taken for the period is meticulous and encompasses the clothes worn in the late 1940s, the concerns for the soon to be born NHS and his unheated car. This leads to an overall sense of the time in which the novel is set and takes us back to a post-war Britain experiencing one of its largest seismic shift in respect of the crumbling upper classes and the demise of the servant classes. Dr Faraday conveys an acute awareness of his own class and juxtaposes his mother’s former employment as a nurserymaid at Hundreds Hall with her employers, the higher born Ayres family, the current incumbents of the decaying Hundreds. His first person narration is somewhat unreliably skewed through his perspective and leads to the question of whether he intends to repair his own working class background by proposing marriage to Caroline.
Not only does Water juxtapose the classes in her novel, but she names her narrator as Dr Faraday. It’s not enough to have a doctor relating what appear to be supernatural occurences, but she puts us in mind of Michael Faraday, the person we consider responsible for the discovery of electricity; it’s interesting that the narrator of the novel uses electrical therapy to treat Roderick’s wasted muscles. However, the trope of using a scientist to relate a story that supposedly deals with ghosts and poltergeist phenomena is an interesting one as it leaves us as arbiters. Is Hundreds really possessed by the spirit of the dead child, Susan; are the family members mad or is Dr Faraday the agent of the supernatural occurrences?
Is the novel a metaphor for the changes to society that the Ayres were unable to accommodate, or is it a gothic exploration of England in the middle of the twentieth century? Fears of change have been used to examine and interrogate England in the late eighteenth and late nineteenth centuries. Why can’t this do the same job although retrospectively?