Monday 5 December 2016

Review: Walking on Dry Land by Denis Kehoe

Serpent's Tail, €12.99 Paperback

Published 05/03/2011 | 05:00

Denis Kehoe's first novel Nights Beneath the Nation in 2008 was widely praised. His new one is less successful.

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Portuguese-born Ana, who's in her early 30s, has been living for more than a decade in Dublin, where she teaches film studies. However, when the novel begins she's back in the Lisbon of her upbringing and with a mission to pursue -- to locate her real mother in Angola, where her father Jose and his wife Helena had begun their married life.

The quest takes Ana to Luanda, the capital of that troubled country, where she meets up with her elder brother Tiago, who's based there, and with a number of people who may know the identity and even the whereabouts of Solange, her birth mother. Eventually, and without any problematic obstacles along the way, she finds her and the two meet to discuss their respective pasts.

That's about it in terms of plot, and indeed of substance, too. The author, a 32-year-old Dubliner, is clearly familiar, at least topographically, with both Lisbon and Luanda, but he evokes them in touristic terms and so the reader never gets to feel the psychological, social or cultural pulse of either place.

Nor do we really get the pulse of the main characters. Helena's presented as a hopeful young woman and Jose as her feckless and indecisive suitor and then husband, but that's about it in terms of our understanding of them. And Ana's career as a film lecturer encourages the author to describe her almost purely in movie terms: rather than bothering with characterisation, he invites us to think of her as a film heroine -- Jean Seberg, Peggy Cummins, Leslie Caron and Tippi Hedren are among the laboriously referenced stars.

Indeed, there's an unreal air about these people -- they're characters conjured up by the author and don't register as having independent lives of their own. All characters in all novels, of course, are inventions but the trick is to make them seem so vividly real that the reader forgets the fabricating artifice that's required for their creation.

The book has other problems, too. Each of the short chapters is alternatively set in the Lisbon or Luanda inhabited by Jose and Helena 40 years ago and in the same cities four decades later, as Ana conducts her quest. This device, which requires the reader to see-saw constantly between two time frames, prevents the possibility of any real narrative flow.

If that's a structural defect, there's the added irritant of a constantly repeated stylistic tic whereby sentences are shorn of main verbs and/or personal pronouns, as in: "Is reassured by his obvious interest because there are times when he runs hot and cold, seems to be living in another time zone" and "When he is consumed by incessant analysis, silent sojourns into his own world, own words running through his head."

These are both from the same paragraph but such wearying mannerisms occur on every page and make this shortish novel a long slog for the reader.

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