Engrossing account of grief and motherhood
Fiction: Colours Other than Blue, Anthony Glavin, Ward River Press, pbk, 400 pages, €16.99.
Anthony Glavin prefaces his second novel with a quote from Irish poet Richard Weber: "Sadness is surely the secret mother of memory". And quite an apt citation it turns out to be, too. Set in the Dublin of 1988, we are invited via diary entries into the psyche of Irish-American Maeve, a matron at the Fairview Home for the Elderly and mother of 15-year-old Katy. As the story opens, we learn of the death of her father in Boston and over the next nine months we join Maeve on her journey through grief and recollection.
On the advice of counsellor Sister Una, Maeve begins to recall her childhood in Boston and her relationships with both of her parents. Unsure of herself, yet driven to document what she's going through, it's from her diary that we begin to uncover her strained relationship with her late mother and see how Maeve has yet to process this loss.
In the months following her father's death, she finds herself uneasy and beset by a vague depression as she is "wracked by an indiscriminate sorrow that makes no sense". At the same time, she grapples with old feelings she has newly discovered. What Glavin subtly demonstrates is how associations formed in childhood shape and influence future behaviours. We are gradually shown how Maeve's poor relationship with her mother has affected the formation of her own identity and sense of self. Her mother's history of mental illness also hangs over her as she lives with the fear she, too, will one day lose her grip on reality.
The author raises many questions about what it means to be a good parent or, for that matter, a good child. We are left wondering, does one ever truly emerge from the shadow left behind by their parents?
While following Maeve through her daily life, her good and bad moods and the comical dramas of the nursing home, we begin to form an idea of her overall fluctuating mental state.
The increasingly revealing diary entries capture well the anxiety and self-doubt that come with the expectations and obligations of womanhood. And for Maeve, these anxieties are mostly wrapped up in her own fears and concern surrounding motherhood. As a single mother, she can feel her past relationship with her own mother interfere with her sense of duty towards her daughter and finds this perturbing. Glavin conveys these apprehensions with a stunning accuracy and recognisable truthfulness.
Glavin's light touch allows him to gently deal with heavy topics such as ageing and death. His bright conversational tone and skilled storytelling makes the tale of an ordinary person with an unremarkable life coping with her parents' passing extremely readable. He brings us along a natural, realistic and very gradual progression through Maeve's confused grief without ever once letting the story lag. Using his remarkably understated style, Glavin manages to, largely indirectly, sneak some of life's most essential troubling questions into a charming, flowing and engaging narrative.
Maeve's voice is sustained convincingly throughout, while her distinct tone, one full of an Irish mother's wit and warmth, also remains consistent.
As Sister Una tells Maeve at one of their counselling sessions: "When we are young, Maeve, we think all the answers lie somewhere out ahead of us. But as we grow older, we begin to see how some of them lie behind - from whence and where we've come." We believe Maeve has reached a pause in life in which she has space to reflect.
Most importantly, this feels honest and truthful. And truthful writing is what really makes a story genuinely engrossing.