independent

Friday 25 April 2014

Last visit to Maeve's circle of friends

Judging by her novels, Maeve Binchy had a gift for happiness. That's not to suggest the business of living came easily to her, but the common thread throughout her work indicates a woman who believed in making the best of things -- a virtue which was often rewarded.

While still alive, she achieved national treasure status, and what a sterling President she would have made if she had run for the Áras. After all, the President's role partly hinges on selling Ireland abroad, and Maeve did that with grace during her literary career.

When she died on July 30 and was buried on one of the wettest days of summer, with golden roses from her husband Gordon Snell on her coffin, it was a loss keenly felt -- both by those who knew her, and by those who knew her through her work.

It is no exaggeration to say that both Maeve and her books were loved. Deservedly so.

Strictly speaking, her novels -- all 17 of them -- aren't romances. In fact, she was mystified to win a romantic novelists' award because she said no heroines were clutched to manly chests in her world.

What readers could expect were believable characters and a storyline as comforting as stepping into a warm bath.

That was the approach she adopted in her first novel, Light a Penny Candle, and it struck a chord: she went on to sell more than 40 million books translated into dozens of languages, with some turned into films, including Circle of Friends.

Some years ago, I contributed a short story to a charity collection, of which Maeve was the jewel in the crown. Writers thronged the launch, and Gordon fetched us up one by one to speak to her. She suffered with arthritis for years, and by then was unable to mingle as she'd like to do -- so he organised the mingling for her.

Suddenly, he'd appear at someone's elbow, and it wasn't dissimilar to a royal summons. Once in her company, she was friendly and chatty, but sharp as a tack, too. She asked a few pertinent questions and your life story was laid bare. Shrewd, as well as kind.

Before that, I met her in London, when I worked as a journalist and was sent to interview her. She had a talent for intimacy and interviewers were soon under her spell.

But she was a storyteller to her fingertips, and before long she was looking around the Fleet Street pub where we met, speculating on the lives of its occupants.

Those seanchaí skills have touched people worldwide. Her currency is family relationships, humour and a sense of community, and she brings those dynamics into play in her final book, published posthumously.

A Week In Winter is shot through with her trademark charm, although Maeve was ill when she was working on it.

Not quite a novel, not exactly a collection of short stories, it interlinks tales about guests and staff at the Stone House, a cliff-top hotel in the west of Ireland.

There is Chicky, home from the US to run the hotel, with a secret she is anxious to keep from the locals. Guests include a nurse with a boyfriend whose manipulative mother makes her wonder if their relationship is worth pursuing, and the Walls, careful with money and addicted to entering competitions.

Babies are born, old people die, love blooms, the wheel of life turns.

Reading it, we can hear Maeve's voice from beyond the grave: be hopeful and brave, she advises. In that sense, the book is as optimistic as anything she has written. If it was an object, it would be a pot-bellied stove round which people would draw for its cosy glow.

At times, however, A Week In Winter has a less polished feel to it than would have pleased Maeve. If more time had been allowed to her, no doubt she would have made a number of revisions, particularly towards the end.

There is no question about her storytelling ability, nor about her empathy with ordinary people. The reader continues to feel drawn to invest in the lives of these characters she sets out before us.

But some of them behave as if they inhabit 1950s Ireland, and the dialogue of her young characters, in particular, doesn't always ring true.

Where she is on firmer ground is in the sphere of human foibles: worry, ambition, shame, the desire to belong, the longing for companionship.

Writers approaching the end of their lives are not always producing their best work, especially if they are unwell. I don't mean later novels lack merit, because even on an off-peak day Maeve has the capacity to transport readers into her make-believe universe. But I suspect she would have preferred to tweak this book a little more.

Still, the reader is conscious of one characteristic, above all: here is an author who had a zest for life, even as she approached her own finale. In that respect, she could have been a protagonist in a Maeve Binchy novel.

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