Sunday 19 November 2017

Brilliant and brutal tale of loss and retribution

Fiction: This is Now, Ciara Geraghty, Hachette Ireland, pbk, 356 pages, €17.70

Compelling: Ciara Geraghty's subject matter is bleak, but still tender.
Compelling: Ciara Geraghty's subject matter is bleak, but still tender.

Lorraine Courtney

Ciara Geraghty has never shied away from the opportunity to unsettle her readers. In Saving Grace, the eponymous Grace is trying to cope with her brother's tragic death. Becoming Scarlett tackles a pregnancy where the dad isn't certain. Now That I've Found You centred on the struggles of a single dad after his wife abandons her young family. Her sixth novel, This is Now, continues the trend.

Geraghty starts the book with a bank robbery, on an ordinary Monday, at an ordinary bank, in an ordinary town. It is an extraordinary opening, written with such taut understatement that the four major character's involvements in the robbery are given a visceral power: we empathise with them immediately, despite knowing little about Martha, Tobias, Roman or Cillian. But there will be no let-up: the subject matter is unrelentingly bleak but still compelling and tender.

The first thing Martha thinks about is pouring herself a big drink - but she's an alcoholic or, as she prefers to describe it, has "an uneasy relationship" with drink. She rereads her six reasons why she shouldn't ever drink again and two of these are the same. These two reasons are Cillian, the Donegal detective she thought she'd never see again. Cillian is back in Dublin investigating the robbery.

Roman is a young Polish immigrant. He's just 14 and now he must go on the run. It wasn't his fault; his tragic backstory left him no option but to join a criminal gang to support his mother. Finally, there's Tobias, old and alone, he's badly injured in the robbery. He lies in a coma haunted by dreams about his boyhood in war-torn Dresden. This quartet provide the axis on which the plot turns.

The characters we encounter, no matter how ostensibly different, are all caught up in the same narrow set of concerns, and are running from their pasts.

They're all fundamentally lonely, and have a tendency to drift, in mild befuddlement, through life. Yet downbeat though they mostly are, these portraits are by no means unsympathetic. One of Geraghty's strengths is that she is able to reveal his character's limitations - and, quite often, their absurdities - without mocking them.

There is some heavy stuff here. During World War II, the most beautiful baroque city in Europe became ashes and rubble. Dresden was, and remains, a symbol of the horror of war, but Tobias had repressed his memories. He can't escape them now.

"He was a boy again and it was Dresden that was weeping. Dresden that was burning still. People ran like tributaries to the Elbe… Some just sat there and stared at their city. At Dresden, burning. These people looked stunned." Martha gratefully discovered the use of alcohol as a social lubricant, not realising until too late that it was also a potent source of shame, isolating in its own right.

She needed booze to keep going and as an eye-opener in the morning, she lied about her drinking and lied, too, about all kinds of large and small details. The scenes where she binges will make you cringe. "'I'm trying to get drunk here.' This time she splashed the vodka into a glass, drank it in one long, gulping motion, then sat on the couch that was too big for the room and passed out."

The emotional power of Geraghty's prose is such that the reader is complicit in their journeys from loss to retribution. She forces us to confront the darkness that lies beneath the skin. The result is a brilliant and brutal novel that continues to unsettle long after the final page has been turned.

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