Monday 20 February 2017

Reimagining of Greek tale of two women

Fiction: The Years That Followed, Catherine Dunne, Simon and Schuster, pbk, 384 pages, €18.99

Published 17/04/2016 | 02:30

Appeal: Catherine Dunne, it could be said, is more popular outside of Ireland.
Appeal: Catherine Dunne, it could be said, is more popular outside of Ireland.
The Years That Followed

Greek mythology isn't normally associated with 1960s Dublin, but a reimagining of the tale of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon is the starting point for Catherine Dunne's latest novel, The Years That Followed. It tells the parallel stories of Calista and Pilar, two women who have never met but whose lives are nevertheless inextricably intertwined.

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This is Catherine Dunne's 10th novel. Yet her work, which deals with universal themes, such as love, friendship, secrecy and loss and is rooted in the lives of ordinary women, defies easy categorisation.

She does, however, consistently create strong female characters.

"I made the decision a long time ago that I want my characters to be authentic and I don't mind whether my readers dislike them intensely or love them - the point for me is that they believe in them, they believe that this person could exist," Dunne has said.

Possibly an unlikely believer is Veronica Lario, the ex-wife of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. In 2007, Lario sent an open letter to La Repubblica demanding an apology from her then husband after news of his flirtatious behaviour became public. "Like the Catherine Dunne character, I have to regard myself as 'half of nothing'," she wrote. She was referring to the character of Rose in Dunne's debut 1997 novel, In the Beginning, who is abruptly abandoned by her husband.

Unsurprisingly, Dunne's novels subsequently enjoyed a rise in popularity in Italy, and in 2013, she won that country's Giovanni Boccaccio International Prize for Fiction for The Things We Know Now, joining such other renowned recipients as Vikram Seth, Mark Haddon and Muriel Spark.

Dunne has been fascinated by the theme of women trapped in suffocating relationships since she read Ibsen's play A Doll's House as a 13-year-old.

"For me, from a very young age the theatre of the family was where it all happens. Where do you get more drama? More love, more lust, more hate? It's all there." she said.

Those emotions are certainly present in the stories of Greek mythology, not least in the tale of the part-villain, part-victim Clytemnestra and her husband Agamemnon, which makes an original inspiration for Dunne's story of love, loss and revenge in The Years That Followed.

Beautiful, headstrong Calista is just 17 when she becomes captivated by the dashing Alexandros, a rich business acquaintance of her father. Her life is changed utterly when she becomes pregnant, marries Alexandros and is swept from her safe, affluent home in Ireland to live in Cyprus among her new husband's family. Lonely and isolated, it isn't long before the darker side of Alexandros emerges.

Pilar promised her dying mother that she would escape their rural, poverty-stricken life in Spain's Extremadura. She moves to Madrid, determined to create a new world for herself, one in which she will never have to depend on anyone else.

Then, she meets an older, cosmopolitan man and, dangerously, allows herself to imagine a future with him, eventually paying a high price for her uncharacteristic folly.

It could be argued that Dunne's work, which has been widely translated, has been received more favourably abroad than in Ireland, despite her adeptness at dealing with the complexities of family life. Hopefully, The Years That Followed will do much to enhance her reputation at home.

In Calista and Pilar, Dunne has created two very different, but equally intriguing characters, and it is impossible not to root for them as they battle to forge their own way in a world where men hold sway.

Admittedly, I did find Calista's tale to be the more compelling, but Pilar's voice demands to be heard and ultimately made this reader glad she did so. I definitely felt a sense of loss on turning the final page.

But a word of warning, read The Years That Followed and remember the words of Chinese philosopher Confucius that if one is bent on seeking revenge, then one "must dig two graves".

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