Tuesday 6 December 2016

Review: Long Time, No See by Dermot Healy

Faber & Faber, €14.99

Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 10/04/2011 | 05:00

If there really is no such thing as bad publicity, then Dermot Healy's new novel couldn't have had a more auspicious start, sparking as it did one of those furious rows which periodically grip the small world of Irish fiction.

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The cause was a lukewarm review in the Irish Times which drew the fury of Healy's fellow writer Eugene McCabe, who dashed off an intemperate but highly amusing letter to Madam. The novel itself got lost in the white noise, but arguments are fleeting and novels last forever. Especially ones as good as Long Time, No See, despite the so far less than effusive reviews. Could it be that Healy has set the bar so high with previous efforts that any new book is bound to disappoint? Arguably. The author of A Goat's Song and Sudden Times has tended to fly under the radar of popular adulation; but his admirers, while fewer in number than many lesser contemporaries, have high expectations when he puts pen to paper. The surface slightness of his latest effort seems to have confounded them momentarily.

There's no plot to speak of. No character development as such. Mister Psyche, the young narrator, hangs around his family home in Sligo, emptying the lobster pots, helping foreigners jump start their car, buying booze for his uncle Joejoe and friend Blackbird, walking out with his girlfriend, remembering a dead friend, finding ancient walls uncovered by storms. Nothing happens, but everything happens. Time passes. People die. It all seems so true to actual life, so tangible and authentic, that objections to the loose ends the novel undoubtedly leaves dangling seem trivial in comparison to the achievement in capturing moments so real that you feel you could step into the book and live there.

Increasingly I can't help thinking that we've been ruined, as readers, by fiction itself. That desire to wrap everything up neatly in dumb narrative arcs. We're dissatisfied when characters don't learn anything about themselves, or resolve their inner conflicts, but the fault is in us, because that's not what real people are like, they don't have neat endings. Mostly, people just go on doing whatever it is they're doing. "It's extraordinary how ordinary life is," says one character, a line with a multitude of meanings, and Healy is faithful to every one of them.

This new novel is like a string of shining stones; the descriptive writing is sparse and haunting; the dialogue unerringly true; there's a rhythm here, of weather and work, the past leaking into the now, which pays fitting testament to Joejoe's profound remark as they sit eating dinner in the dark during a power cut: "We forget what we owe to what we've forgotten, till we encounter it again out of the corner of the eye, in passing."

The book is full of such time-stopping, quiet, melancholy observations, all laced with the same sense of mortality which suffused John McGahern's last novel, That They May Face The Rising Sun. Like that book, Long Time No See is very funny too, with some great set pieces. People say and do ridiculous things. Healy treats them all with acceptance and sympathy, which lends a deep serenity to the work, in contrast to the often tortured undertow of his previous books. The people here are wounded too, but Healy's watching over them, as if from above, letting them be. It might not satisfy readers who demand more linear rewards; but think of the book as music, and simply listen, and the melody is unforgettable.

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