A tale of love and loneliness to take your breath away
My Coney Island Baby
by Billy O'Callaghan
Jonathan Cape €16.99
Great literature is strewn with stories of great love. And though the happy-ever-after market has always been fed, it's those stories of the ones that got away that really linger.
Jane Eyre's "Reader, I married him" delivers some justice after her lifetime of misery. But it's the devastating resignation in the last line of Gatsby, "And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past", that haunts us.
The history of big, tragic love stories is one populated by big, tragic characters. And so the feat of weaving great tragedy from the fibre of two very ordinary lives is not for the faint-hearted. But there's nothing faint-hearted about this novel.
Michael and Caitlin have been having an affair for 25 years, meeting once a month in a Coney Island hotel room. On the November day on which the novel is set, both lovers bring news that threatens to end the affair.
Coney Island itself, a haven of summer fun in times gone, is now "…basic, perfunctory, clean in that ugly, ravaged way of old and over-washed things".
This is one of O'Callaghan's more striking metaphors for his characters' respective marriages, where duty and responsibility and other traits no longer fashionable have shaped their lives up to now. There are no children - at least, no surviving ones - to complicate matters, but still neither party has been capable of incurring the damage that leaving their spouses would inevitably bring.
The story wafts from the present to the past with breathtaking skill. Michael's childhood on Inishbofin is wrought from hardship but also from his parents' gentleness and his father's love of ancient legends.
"Inishbofin is home, even still, but the connections to the place are too long lost, the damage irreparable."
Caitlin is a New Yorker, the only child of Madge, an Irish immigrant hardened by feckless men and gruelling work. "Beyond songs and soft accents, Irishness... had been punches in the mouth and the kind of physical and emotional poverty broken in the end only by an unannounced desertion. She should have had her fill, but instead held to it as something godly."
Caitlin escapes by marrying a husband who's not Irish. Michael falls too fast for his boss's all-American cousin, Barbara.
Marriages gone awry are lonely places, though, as desolate as Coney Island on a wind-whipped November weekday. The characters' yearning within their half-functioning, wholly dead couplings only amplifies their sadness.
But with huge changes imminent, do they finally dare to contemplate being together? Michael's wife is now terminally ill. Caitlin's husband has secured a promotion. In Illinois. Maybe now is their chance?
This is not an epic novel, there are no heroes. It is a story of two ordinary people, trapped in their ordinary lives - but in the hands of O'Callaghan it is magnified to the truly extraordinary. A great tragedy. I'd long thought Anita Brookner the high priestess when it comes to telling the tales of loneliness and defeat. But she's now got company.