Monday 22 July 2019

Books: A painful pilgrimage back into the past life

Where They Lie by Mary O'Donnell, New Island, €13.99

Author Mary O'Donnell
Author Mary O'Donnell

Eilis O’Hanlon

According to Umberto Eco, a title should “muddle the reader’s ideas, not regiment them”.

The creator of The Name Of The Rose would wholeheartedly approve of the title of Mary O'Donnell’s latest novel in that respect. Where They Lie  cleverly weaves together the various strands of this ambiguous shifting narrative.

Gerda, a journalist by profession, wants to know where the bodies of two brothers, abducted, murdered and secretly buried by the IRA some years previously, literally “lie”. On the other hand, the living “lie” too – to each other; to themselves. “Lying” in its older sexual meaning also comes into it. Gerda and her Dublin boyfriend have a complicated on-off relationship; her brother, Gideon, and evangelical Christian wife, Alison, are trying for a baby, though he has ambivalent feelings about it.

These are big themes, and O’Donnell doesn’t flinch from them. Gerda couldn’t, even if she wanted to, because a man called Cox keeps calling her, claiming to have information about the whereabouts of the “Disappeared” brothers, killed during a brutal IRA campaign against Border Protestants.

Boyfriend Niall is sceptical. Gideon, meanwhile, doesn’t know what to make of Niall, and Alison has mixed feelings about Gerda. No one is entirely open with one another. Their inner thoughts are frequently at odds with the words which pass their lips. The tension between the English and Irish languages feeds into that unease as well.

Monaghan-born O’Donnell is canny on the mutual suspicion between Northerners and Southerners, their discomfort in one another’s spaces. “When Niall got back to Dublin, he always breathed a little more easily,” she writes. “It was not a case of feeling fear of any particular kind when he was in the north so much, as an uncertainty about reading behind the words and the looks… In his own country, he knew what was what.”

She’s similarly terrific at teasing out the distance between men and women, not least in the shape of Niall, a personable if unreliable man who has “begun to doubt his capacity for handling women’s sorrows.” No wonder that Celtic Tiger Dublin, in which much of this novel is very deliberately set, with all its acutely-observed sense of freedom, opportunity, and shaking off the worst of the past, provides such an escape from the claustrophobic oppressiveness of Belfast.

There are no easy answers. How could there be? Gerda seeks “a rite of cleansing, or perhaps atonement.” As she tells herself: “There had to be ways of addressing wrongdoing.” But the pilgrimage she eventually makes up the windswept northern coast, following the mysterious Cox’s directions, dredges up different secrets than expected, leaving these four characters tragically more uncomprehending of each other than before.

“They all had their certainties about life, and yet they had none… without bones and DNA analysis, they had no history and family. They could not reattach themselves.”

Gerda may be named after the heroine in the Hans Christian Andersen book who travelled to the Snow Queen’s castle to rescue the one she loves, but real life is no fairy tale.

There are no happy ever afters. Indeed, the final word END which concludes this book feels like another lie in itself. It seems as if these people’s stories are only beginning. They have so much more to work through.

By turns lyrical and angry, this short passionate novel forensically examines one of the most painful traumas of Ireland’s recent past and makes something altogether strange and lovely from it.

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