Book review: A Shadow in the Yard, by Liz McManus
Eilis O'Hanlon on the second novel from retired politician Liz McManus
Despite growing up in a household where politics was regarded with what she describes as "healthy contempt", Liz McManus had the good fortune to come of age in the 1960s, first cutting her teeth as a student activist in UCD's Earlsfort Terrace campus, where she campaigned against plans by the city council to tear down the cultural heritage of the capital.
It was "chic" to be involved in politics back then, she recently recalled. It was the era of student revolts in the US and Europe and students here joined in. "We organised sit-ins, sleep-ins, and generally caused mayhem."
And as the demand for change and civil rights in the North intensified in the late 1960s, led partly by students like Bernadette Devlin (who McManus met at the time), it all assumed an even greater importance.
The experience stood McManus in good stead, though it took another 30 years - after stints as a local councillor, organiser of a women's refuge and columnist with the now defunct Sunday Tribune, amongst other things - before she finally came to prominence in national politics by winning a seat in Co Wicklow for the Worker's Party in the 1992 General Election.
McManus held on to it for the next 19 years, serving as an effective Minister for Housing in the Rainbow Government of the mid-1990s, before retiring from the Dáil in 2011 to devote herself once more to writing; but the precedence that she gives to literature in her biography makes its own point.
The former TD has always thought of herself primarily as a novelist - and, as a previous winner of the Hennessy and Irish PEN awards, she has every right to do so. If she does feel now a need to re-assert her credentials as a serious writer to avoid accusations of dilettantism which often haunt politicians with a parallel life in fiction, she needn't have worried.
From the start of this new work, it's clear that the reader is in good hands. It's the winter of 1970 on the Inishowen Peninsula in Co Donegal, and an elderly man by the name of Tom Mundy is walking his dog on the morning after a huge storm when, in the swollen river, he sees a woman's body, recognising it at once as that of his next-door neighbour, a young mother of two by the name of Rosaleen McAvady.
So far, so promising. A Shadow On The Yard, however, is not a whodunnit so much as a whydunnit, and the story instantly shoots back to the previous summer, as Rosaleen steps forward to tell her own story.
Her student days in UCD, studying architecture, as McManus did. Marriage. Motherhood. Rosaleen isn't unhappy, merely unfulfilled, with a sense of "grumbling discontent".
"Though I knew I didn't want another baby, I still couldn't say what I did want. I couldn't complain about my life. It was the one I had chosen, but I was afraid of the silences, of long, empty afternoons."
She takes a job at an architectural practise across the border in Derry, but the Troubles start to loom over their lives. Rosaleen's husband urges her to give up work. "You're a mother now. You can't be taking risk. . . We can't have what we want all the time."
"You mean I can't have what I want," she replies.
The tragedy which strikes this ordinary family is only the beginning. McManus wants to explore what happens after violence has run its course. The second part of the story takes place in 1998.
Rosaleen's daughter, Aoife, is in her thirties, having an affair with a married man, though she thinks of it more as a "diversion from reality". Like her mother, she doesn't really know what she wants or who she is.
This part of the novel is written with a vivid and infectious immediacy, in the present tense. A grim inevitability hangs over the first half of the book, because the reader already knows that Rosaleen will meet a terrible end.
The later section sparkles instead with possibilities. Aoife still has her life to live, even if she doesn't yet know what to do with it. She takes a trip north and, standing at Rosaleen's grave, feels a sense of failure. "As if there is something more to be done, something to be brought to completion, which she cannot fathom."
The idea of this barely-remembered person who was her mother "never goes away. It is like a limb, jerking and twitching, long after amputation. Rest in peace for never." All the more so when Aoife, like Rosaleen, faces the prospect of an unwanted pregnancy. How can she have a baby when she is not "properly equipped to deal with life?"
McManus controls her material throughout with an authoritative grace, and she has a great sense of place, whether describing the shores of Lough Swilly, inner city Dublin or, of course, the North. The former TD is of that generation whose priorities were shaped by events across the Border, and it permeates her fiction; likewise, what are often called, dismissively, women's issues. The politics here are worn with an admirable lightness; woven into the fabric of the narrative rather than being stamped on them as a clumsy afterthought.
Aoife's brother, Conor, is a pivotal influence, but ultimately this is a book about women. About the choices they make, and the consequences which unravel from them. No one is perfect. As Conor says: "Good enough is good enough."
McManus's second novel has been a long time coming, but it more than justifies the wait.
A Shadow in the Yard
Ward River Press, tpbk, 320pp, €14.99
Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350