Saturday 3 December 2016

Review: Before the house burns by Mary O'Donoghue

Lilliput Press, €12.99

Published 29/01/2011 | 05:00

Award-winning short story writer and poet Mary O'Donoghue (right) doesn't pull any punches with her debut novel Before The House Burns. The Clare-born writer and American college lecturer tackles an array of heavyweight themes including grief, familial love, the destructiveness of pride, betrayal and the powerlessness of the poor.

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The tender, often heartbreaking, story about a vulnerable, nomadic family from the west of Ireland is told through a shifting, retrospective narrative of all three children, Eva, Maeve and Benny, a parent's diary and the eldest sibling, Eva, in the present day.

The father is an anti-social dreamer whose only passions are his beloved family and his books. His sole aim in life is to find a quiet home but through his own pride and two tragic events that come to define the family, that dream constantly eludes him.

Through the eyes of the children at various ages we see the family move from house to house, up and down the Atlantic coast searching for that elusive place called home. Each place is more wretched than the next, each move destroys the family that little bit more.

The insights of the children as the family struggles with poverty, depression and isolation, although poignantly naive, often have a clarity that seems to evade the adults.

The father is a clever man who has come nowhere near reaching his potential in life. He is fired from every menial job he has, frustrated and furious by those around him. At one point Eva observes: "I had an idea that fathers like to spend time complaining about things instead of putting up with them or trying to do something about them".

At her communion lunch, she meets her mother's parents who her father has alienated through his obsession for self-sufficiency. The occasion is filled with queasy silence as happy families laugh all around them. Eva remarks: "In the end they left immediately after lunch. I suppose that broken feeling at the table was too messy even for my big day to fix."

Although the story is without doubt a sorrowful one, the unwavering love of the family and the children's often humorous observations saves the novel from becoming too depressing.

Sometimes the narrative of Before The House Burns gets a little too crowded and may have been better limited just to the three children. The use of long sections of italics to portray the present day is difficult to read and a clumsy device.

However, O' Donoghue is a gifted writer, her voice disquieting and evocative. Her themes are modern and ambitious and the characters delicately developed. On reading Before The House Burns Anne Enright called Mary O'Donohue "a voice to welcome and watch", and indeed it is.

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