Tuesday 18 December 2018

A deftly crafted story of suffering and grief

Fiction: The Trick to Time, Kit de Waal, Viking, hardback, 262 pages, €12.99

British-Irish background: Kit De Waal's novel is set in both Birmingham and Wexford
British-Irish background: Kit De Waal's novel is set in both Birmingham and Wexford

Joanne Hayden

In her award-winning first novel, My Name is Leon, Kit de Waal traces an eight-year-old boy's journey through the British care system in the early 1980s. As resilient as he is vulnerable, the character of Leon ultimately inspires hope rather than despair, and the British-Irish writer follows her debut with a story that again balances darkness and light.

The Trick to Time alternates between Wexford in the 1960s, Birmingham in the 1970s, and a present-day English coastal town where Mona, the central character, owns a doll shop. As well as decorating the dolls and hand-sewing their clothes, Mona acts as an unofficial - and unorthodox - grief therapist to women whose babies have died.

The novel is suffused with grief, and the way in which people cope and fail to cope with grief is one of its central themes. There are flashbacks to Mona's Kilmore Quay childhood and her mother's early death. As a young woman, Mona leaves Ireland for Birmingham and falls in love with an Irishman. She marries and falls pregnant but her life disintegrates in November 1974, on the night of the Birmingham pub bombings.

De Waal handles her timeline skilfully, creating tension at every stage. She is particularly good at writing place - Birmingham's flatland or the seaside during low season - and in both the interior and exterior scenes, she zooms in on the right details, never overloading her prose. She writes simply but rhythmically, planting several questions as the novel progresses, and covering a lot of ground - from the experience of the Irish in Birmingham after the IRA bombs to the particularities of romance in later life - with a lightness of touch.

In the present-day sections, Mona, now an older woman, finds her affections divided between Karl, an ostensibly sophisticated German, and the laconic, tormented carpenter who carves her dolls and also makes rougher, weight-specific grieving aides for the women who have lost babies.

De Waal does not shy away from depicting extreme suffering and some of the counselling passages, as well as a stillbirth scene in a hospital, evoke the characters' pain so acutely they feel almost intrusive. A woman sits in Mona's flat. Mona hands over the wooden baby - five pounds, seven ounces - and encourages the woman to imagine in depth the life her daughter would have had if she'd lived. As a rapid intimacy develops between the pair, their construction of a fictional life begins to seem less strange. Here, as elsewhere, de Waal asks her readers to suspend judgment, to question their own preconceptions about what is right and what is normal for people who have suffered loss.

Occasionally, the novel does veer towards sentimentality, partly because de Waal - unfashionable as it might be - is exploring goodness. She's easy on her characters. They're not always what they seem but they're usually redeemed or redeemable, their motivations and difficulties eventually made clear.

Like in My Name is Leon, de Waal is interested in the kindness of strangers and in the larger sacrifices people make to accommodate those they love. Without blaming the sufferer, she depicts the catastrophic impact that mental illness can have on the ones who do the bulk of the caring. The carpenter is particularly well drawn, his torment isolating him from most social interaction.

Mona is an unsung hero and an unusual choice of protagonist. Gentle, compassionate, steadfast in love and quietly courageous, she has carved out a niche for herself without ever trying to take up much space. She's an ordinary character in many ways but one who has weathered some extraordinary events. Occasionally, she's a little too good. A couple more bouts of self-pity or an additional hint of bitterness might have made her even more real.

There are a few other off-notes. Mona is an only child, her father is an only child and her mother's relatives "all live in America". Though this is flagged as unusual within the novel, it's just too convenient and the absence of even a single grandparent or a few close relatives made some of the Wexford sections feel slightly unpeopled. There's also scant reference to Mona's school life and friends.

But quibbles aside, de Waal is excellent at showing how the past continues to live in the present, and at keeping her readers guessing. In this well-paced, well-plotted novel, the key twist is saved for the end.

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