Monday 20 May 2019

A Keeper by Graham Norton: Keeping watch on human nature

Fiction: A Keeper, Graham Norton, Hodder & Stoughton, €25 H/B

Norton's stories reflect rural Irish backstories, backlands and backwaters
Norton's stories reflect rural Irish backstories, backlands and backwaters
A Keeper
Deirdre Conroy

Deirdre Conroy

The award-winning, gregarious chat show host Graham Norton is an exceptional Irish man, well immersed in global celebrity. To turn his skills to fiction is no mean feat. A Keeper is his second novel and its themes, as in his first publication Holding, reflect rural Irish backstories, backlands and backwaters.

The story opens with a blustery scene captured in Norton's poetic sense of coastal Irish weather. Edward Foley is hunched while the 'roar of the wind churned with the rasping rhythm of the waves'... his face wet 'with the salty mist of spray from the pounding surf'. The title, A Keeper, takes time to surface, which makes it quite a page-turner to find out why this man is weeping on a promontory of rocks.

The historic aspect of the novel is located in the 1970s but it feels more ancient, possibly because the only means of contact back then was by handwritten letters delivered to a postbox or by a telephone on the hall table.

The narrative of the past is a reminder of a life heavily impacted by the church; the lack of confidence imposed on women who were not married. It recalls a period of cover-ups, and depicts people living in fear of local village gossip.

In the present, Elizabeth Keane has returned to her native village in Kilkenny to clear out the house where her mother has recently died. The plot is framed in alternate chapters of Then and Now. The character and core are dominated by diverse forms of an Irish mammy and the Irish indulgence in tea. No conversation can be had without a cup of tea at the kitchen table. Surprisingly, at a searing moment it becomes clear that tea has a dramatic impact in Elizabeth's unknown past.

Keane is in her forties, and lives in New York. She has flown to Ireland alone, leaving her 17-year-old son behind. Norton is vibrant in his descriptive palette of her surroundings. The detail of each domestic interior would be familiar to anybody who has stayed with their rural Irish grandparents. When Elizabeth steps into her mother's bedroom, pondering what to keep and what to give away, she discovers a bundle of letters that reveal a deep secret her mother had kept all her life. The bundle opens with a fascinating reminder of the matchmaking options before online dating, when advertisements were placed in the Lonely Hearts column of the Irish Farmers Journal and letters were exchanged through a vetting process. Elizabeth's eyes pore over a letter addressed to her mother from a man her daughter has never known, which commences a series of insights by the author into the abundant secrecy that can surround one woman and trigger trauma after trauma.

Inheriting her mother's house in Kilkenny would be a treat, but Elizabeth discovers she has also inherited a remote house in a coastal backwater of West Cork. Travelling the length of Irish roads creates a human trail timeline for her, the past depicted in the lonely life of Patricia Keane, the woman who brought her up.

Observing rural Ireland as an outsider provides Elizabeth with a perspective to see the local community as if it had not changed since she was a child. As she travels to investigate the house she inherited in West Cork, and the secret her mother kept, she hears of another family drama taking part in California.

Norton adroitly connects the shocking events in America with those that occurred in Elizabeth's Irish past and which are hidden in many lives. Whether it is the attitude of Elizabeth's ex-husband, her son, her unknown father or the randy West Cork neighbour, the novel exposes relationship dysfunction, brought about at any age, of lying to a woman. At one point, it appears that artistic licence surpasses a legal issue in the narrative. In his highly compelling novel, Norton interweaves incisive observations of human frailty and female resilience into a very skilled plot.

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