It's an age-old literary device. Someone comes into possession of a manuscript containing secrets from the past. In this case, it's a package of loose, almost indecipherable typewritten pages, tied with twine, whose mysteries are eventually revealed to tell a painful story from the early years of Irish independence.
It's narrated by Rose Raven, who is blind as the story begins, and has also lost her first love. She is the daughter of an Irishwoman and a former British soldier stationed in Dublin. Her brother, Ultan, is an office boy at the Irish Independent office on Middle Abbey Street.
To begin with, the reader isn't told how she went blind - that is only revealed in the novel's final pages - but Rose's inability to see what's going on, in more ways than one, is a recurring theme, reflected in that ambiguous title.
What unfolds is a familiar saga of love and loss in a time of turmoil, as people are caught up in events much bigger than themselves and over which they have no control. "My brother and I were part of a new generation in which change not permanence would define our lives," says Rose. "Ireland was now in a state of permanent insurrection, although few in authority admitted it. Nothing would ever again be the same." Peter Cunningham offers a compelling sketch of those early years of the State. The country's financial affairs are in a mess; tens of thousands are unemployed in commerce and agriculture. Many are getting out while they can, such as the woman who tells Ultan's friend, Rudy, that "Dublin is a wasteland... there's no fun here any more." She's moving to London where there are "parties and the cinema and ice cream".
"Our so-called independence is a sham," declares another character, recklessly.
So when Harry Deegan, a journalist at the same Irish Independent, gets hold of documents and photographs that suggest people are starving to death in the west of the country, powerful forces want to hush it up.
In due course, the documents come to Rose, which in turn attracts the attention of the "fanatical" Detective Sergeant Melody of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, "a peeler who is trying to prove his worth" with the new authorities to compensate for his former, equally fanatical, loyalty to the British crown. Rose is followed, then brought in for questioning.
The story then jumps back to 1920, when the fight for independence is under way and Melody is confident that the union flag would always fly over Ireland and that "order will be swiftly restored and criminality punished" with the arrival of the Black and Tans. It's not a good time to be the daughter of a British soldier. "For some people," Rose is told, "that is a sin for which you can never be forgiven."
These questions of fractured identity and political division couldn't be more timely, and next year's centenary of the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the creation of the Irish Free State will bring them even more sharply to the fore. An epilogue takes the reader into the near future, to a history symposium at University College Dublin in December 2021, at which some of the issues raised by Rose's narrative are finally unravelled and placed in context.
Cunningham has never shied from controversial issues in his fiction, not least in The Taoiseach, a novel based on the life of Charles Haughey. He also wrote a satirical novel about the crash, Capital Sins. He is probably best-known for a widely praised quartet set in his native city of Waterford, beginning with Tapes of the River Delta, the final volume of which, 2013's The Sea and the Silence, won the Prix de l'Europe. Echoing this latest book, that one is also based on the conceit of a lawyer who receives the secret testimony of a dead client, with instructions to destroy it after reading. Unlike this latest novel, that one is set after World War II, but both explore how the country was changed, and ordinary lives affected, by volatile periods of history.
Patrick McCabe describes Freedom is a Land I Cannot See on the cover as "elegant", and Dermot Bolger as "tender"; both words are fitting. Cunningham's writing has the old-fashioned virtues of solidity, craftsmanship and grace. He doesn't show off, nor set out to shock. He has never been in fashion, but the pleasure offered by his fiction is more quiet and timeless.
There are flashes of lyricism in the description of those parts of Dublin that may be suburbs now but were then considered out in the country, while the streets of the city itself are evoked with matter-of-fact naturalism, bearing the stamp of extensive research, all duly referenced in the acknowledgements, but never being overwhelmed by it. There are also some marvellously humorous details, as when Rose, unable to see the man to whom she's talking, hears his false teeth "clacking as he chuckled".
It's a tragic story, but with enough warmth to ultimately feel life-affirming.