Romance and drama combine in nostalgic love story
Fiction: The Judge's Wife, Ann O'Loughlin, Black & White Publishing, pbk, 307 pages, €10.99
A beautiful woman is thrown in an asylum in this second novel from Ann O'Loughlin, The Judge's Wife. Stripped of her possessions, Grace Moran is told "you might be a judge's wife, but here you are nothing, simply nothing", and is then forced naked and shivering down a corridor to scrub herself clean. It's 1954 and we're back in a time of hidden state abuses. O'Loughlin, a journalist for 30 years covering The Troubles and now the courts for the Irish Examiner, is drawn to write about the terrible things that happen to people, and the lonely, dragging lives they lead afterwards.
Her first novel The Ballroom Café, lifted the lid on forced adoptions in Ireland. The Judge's Wife casts an eye on institutional abuse and a culture of shaming and cover-up. O'Loughlin whips this bitter tale into love story that is part set in India.
It turns out Grace had fallen pregnant by a man who is not the judge - to leak a spoiler, the judge is gay and their 'sham' marriage was never consummated. Driven out of her large house on Parnell Square by her evil aunt Violet, she must live out her days in captivity, sewing hems on to handkerchiefs labelled 'Made in Ireland'.
She and her fellow incarcerated women are treated like bold children, she is told lies about the baby she gave birth to, and sometimes kept in isolation.
From this bleak setting she recounts her memories of the Indian doctor she fell in love with in Dublin, Vikram.
The story doesn't unfold in any such linear fashion. The narrative lashes back and forth between 1954, in Our Lady's Asylum in Co Wicklow, and the Dublin remembered by Grace; it also jumps to 1984, in Bangalore, India, where the older Vikram lazes in his coffee plantation, dreaming about Grace, and back to Parnell Square, where the judge has died and his estranged daughter, Emma, is home to pack up his things and find out what happened to her vanished mother.
A true journalist, O'Loughlin misses no opportunity for drama.
In just 307 pages there is a murder suicide, an IRA bombing, a gang rape, an arson attack - and that is before we come to the family secrets, each more exciting than the last.
Some of these events felt excessive. The IRA bombing seemed like a short story within The Judge's Wife, it had so little to do with the novel. Happily, this jumpy world is painted in vivid and delicate prose. The author, who has lived in Bangalore, manages to capture its remote beauty with the same care and precision as she describes Grace's couture dresses.
It is a love story told with wholehearted, purple-tinged romance.
Familiar Dublin places are mapped, such as the Shelbourne, the Gresham, St Stephen's Green, Bewley's Café. There is not a single sex scene.
The effect created is of nostalgia for a more innocent, genteel Ireland of dress fittings and afternoon tea (just the kind of Ireland where abuse and inequality flourished).
The characters, however, never quite come alive. The good ones don't seem to have any bad points, while the bad characters don't seem to have any good ones. Vikram and Grace emerge as saintly beings in a horrible society.
The matrons in the asylum are uniformly malevolent.
In aunt Violet we have a villain whose cruelty is so vast, it's hard to keep a grip on the reality the novel tries to portray.
What's especially jarring is that the dialogue is stiff and formal, the characters tending to talk in speeches to each other.
Have a read of it. The Judge's Wife has a fantastic twist. What's more, O'Loughlin's first novel climbed into the top 10 Kindle bestseller list.
Her fan base on Amazon will have different things to say about this plucky second act.