Sunday 22 July 2018

82-year-old author's graceful debut imbued with a timeless quality

Fiction: Silence Under a Stone, Norma MacMaster, Doubleday, paperback, 304 pages, €15.50

Norma MacMaster
Norma MacMaster
Silence Under a Stone

Hilary a white

Publishing your first novel at 82 is a prime example of playing the creative long-game. For some scribes, Norma MacMaster's debut will no doubt bring comfort in the face of rejection letters or keyboards gathering dust.

On the other hand, MacMaster's fiction debut (she released a memoir in 2008) is not encouraging reading for would-be authors in that it puts on show a lifetime of craft and consideration congealing with a wisdom that cannot be simulated.

She reportedly wrote "a bit now and a bit then", and described holding Silence Under a Stone in her hand as "absolutely shocking" and "like a dream". There is something very hard-nosed and stealthy about all this. Not for her the concerns of building a brand by churning out a novel every 15 months. This is somebody achieving their moment of greatness completely on their own terms and executing it in immaculate style. Most débutantes can only dream of such canniness.

Our narrator is Harriet Campbell who is spending the winter of her days in Sunnyside nursing home. It's 1982, and Harriet is looking back on her days in the early decades of the 20th-century border counties. She puts pen to paper because "this writing, so often a struggle, helps to excise some of the poison that has narrowed my veins".

The poison is laid out bare in the chapters between these diary extracts where we are back in a time that Ireland is lucky to have more-or-less seen the back of. In an austere Presbyterian community just inside "the Free State", Harriet is at the mercy of not only the social conventions of life in fictional Ballymount but the inflexibility of religious ones, too.

She is married off at 16 to Thomas, a stone of a man twice her age who is becoming involved in the Orange Order. Thomas's love initially comes with a level of sweetness borne of the scriptural template of the husband ruling the house with vigilance and sobriety. As the years pass and war breaks out in Europe, the couple welcome James to their smallholding. Thomas becomes a dictator, "black as a shadow" and prone to "dark moods".

While Harriet is worried about James being groomed for Orange Order indoctrination, her own dogma comes to the surface as James comes of age and ends up falling for a girl belonging to the faith of the Romans ("who languish in darkness"). The germinating seeds of the bitterness that would become so commonplace in the region are being sown in the background as a mother in love with God and a son in love with the wrong girl clash tragically.

While in some respects Silence Under a Stone is a very traditional novel, one that frames the "burning fervour" of a mother's love with the scourge of fundamentalism and division, it is remarkable in ways, too. Even if MacMaster never publishes again, this has a timeless quality to it because she does all the simple things - character voicing, context, pace, momentum, structure - with precision and assuredness. Beyond this technical nous, the years have imbued her with a graceful and silken style that ambushes you.

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