An experiment that doesn't come off
Time Present and Time Past
When Deirdre Madden sets up the narrative arc of Time Present and Time Past, it initially appears as if we are in the world of the bourgeois novel.
Meet Fintan Terrence Buckley: a beacon of middle class respectability. The 47-year-old legal advisor works for an import/export firm in the centre of Dublin. He lives in a spacious house which boasts a picturesque view of Howth harbour. For the past 24 years Fintan has been married to Colette, a plain, but honest and kind-hearted woman. They have three children and seem, on the surface of things, to live a comfortable and fulfilling life.
Fairly quickly, however, it becomes apparent Madden is aiming for something more left field. But the approach she takes to get to her chosen destination doesn't quite work.
The author's main theme of concern in this book is the subject of time. In the inlay Madden quotes a verse from the famous TS Eliot poem Burnt Norton, which reads: 'Time present and time past/ Are both perhaps present in time future/And time future contained in time past.'
Eliot used the poem to explore time as an abstract principle: to ask how the past and the future are connected to present experiences. Thus Eliot's philosophical conundrum becomes a leitmotif that Madden's novel works off. Fintan becomes obsessed with old photographs, which offer him "a weird portal back into the past".
As he studies these sacred treasures – which help him place some unknown relatives in his family tree – he engages in a series of intellectual debates with his son, Niall, about the nature of time itself.
Then there is a subplot. This concerns Fintan's sister, Martina: a glamorous middle-aged woman who owns a clothing store in Dublin.
We learn that she spent some years in London, before a terrible experience turned her off men for life. Apart from these small details, not much other action takes place as the story progresses.
Madden writes economic and lyrical sentences that flow with a poetic cadence. But she has a habit of reaching too easily for elaborate similes.
Whisky is described as having the "limpidity of a peaty river in the mountains as it pours over stones". Often this hyperbolic language upsets the rhythm of the prose, and seems out of sync with the world the author is writing about.
When we enter into the private thoughts of Fintan's mother, Joan – who is reflecting on her erstwhile child-rearing days, many decades ago – we are told "she regards it as she feels the citizens of Moscow must have regarded the Lubyanka during the Purge".
This steady and tightly controlled omniscient voice that Madden employs means there is little room for the reader to actually feel any empathy – or care for – the characters.
An attempt is then made to grab the readers' attention through experimentation: the conventional style of social realism is discarded, and, momentarily, we enter into a world of semi-science-fiction.
In one scene Fintan has an out-of-body experience where he realises he is dead: "The civilisation, for want of a better word, in which he lives, is over," Madden declares histrionically.
She then suddenly shifts, without any prior warning, to writing in the future tense: we hear of the Buckley family's various achievements and failures, decades from the present.
In this postmodernist tone the third person narrator encroaches on the narrative, becoming uber philosophical in the process.
Madden has displayed the fruits of her talents in the seven other novels she has written hitherto. There is no doubt she is a writer we should treasure and celebrate. But this is one experiment that just hasn't quite worked as a single cohesive piece of work.