Friday 18 January 2019

Gloomy tale of family strife

Fiction: Silence Under A Stone, Norma MacMaster, Doubleday Ireland, €15.99

Silence Under a Stone
Silence Under a Stone

Justine Carbery

Norma MacMaster, a Presbyterian minister in her 80s, with a memoir and frequent contributions to Sunday Miscellany already under her belt, has turned her hand to fiction, penning her debut novel Silence Under a Stone. The novel is handsomely written, with keen observations of nature and a lively turn of phrase, and has as its subject matter an austere Presbyterian community just inside 'The Free State'.

But the relentless bitterness and sectarian doctrine of the main character Harriet and her dour husband Thomas make for hard reading.

There is little light in this gloomy novel and although the prose is on point and the setting minutely rendered, it is difficult to relate to the characters.

Harriet Campbell is a resident of a nursing home where she ekes out her days writing about her life in her husband's house 'a great lump of granite... a house bald and bleak as the things that went on in it'. She recalls her childhood and arranged marriage at 16 to a local man twice her age, a morose church Elder, who becomes involved in the Orange Order. The description of those slow days spent tending to their small-holding and her inflexible husband is richly portrayed in tight, lucid prose, but offer little cheer to the reader.

Into their world comes baby James, on whom Harriet dotes, but Thomas, prone to 'dark moods' and resentful of the boy's close relationship with his mother, hires a local Catholic girl to mind him. MacMaster's clownish portrayal of the rosary-wielding, holy water-spraying Anna May is hard to take, making it difficult for the reader to sympathise with Harriet's present or future plight.

A bright child, James is earmarked for great things, and set to become a minister. But when he falls for a Catholic girl and decides to walk away from the Presbyterian Church for the sake of love, Harriet is torn between her love of her God and her son. Outraged at his abandonment of his religion, her blind adherence to faith coils into a knot of unyielding bitterness, and we wonder how the feud will end.

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