Saturday 23 February 2019

Griffin's debut a candid, uncannily accurate portrait of human frailty

Fiction: When All Is Said

Anne Griffin

Sceptre, €13.99

Uncanningly accurate: Anne Griffin
Uncanningly accurate: Anne Griffin

Anne Cunningham

Maurice Hannigan, wealthy businessman and landowner, takes a seat at the bar in his local hotel to raise five toasts. One is to his dead daughter, another to his son living in the US, a third is to his wife Sadie, now dead two years, a fourth to his much-loved older brother and finally a toast to his disturbed sister-in-law.

These are the people whom Maurice Hannigan has loved. To have loved just five people in a very long lifetime seems a slender number. But Maurice is not a generous man, with love or with money. Part of his appeal is his honesty about his own meanness, which he sees now with the clarity of hindsight.

With his wife gone, Maurice is utterly alone at 84 years of age. His present level of self-awareness has come too late to be of much use to him. Addressing his absent son, he says: "As for Irish men, I've news for you. It's worse as you get older. It's like we tunnel ourselves deeper into our aloneness. Solving our problems on our own. Men, sitting alone at bars going over and over the same old territory in our heads."

And as his story evolves, we are reminded that marriage and children do not necessarily provide any buffers against the terrifying solitude of old age.

Born into rural poverty in Co Meath, he spends his entire life in the place of his birth. His parents and older brother work in the local Big House, owned by the Dollards. The Dollard father, a drunken ne'er-do-well, beats the Dollard son, who in turn beats Maurice and anyone else he can catch. Maurice is warned by his family never to retaliate, but instead he spends his entire lifetime in a kind of retaliation. It begins with him stealing a very valuable coin and allowing Dollard Junior to take the blame for losing it. This single act of theft, committed when Maurice is still a young boy, is to shape his and others' lives for years to come.

But there are some lives that can't be shaped, nor saved. His brother dies of TB, still only a child himself. His "touched" sister-in-law, with her broken mind and her fondness for shiny coins (including the stolen one) is another loss, along with his daughter and finally his wife. By now his only living relative is his son, busy rearing his own family in America. Maurice has become a rich man over the years, but finds money is no protection from loneliness. A belated crisis of conscience about the stolen coin finally forces him to act.

This novel is as candid a portrait of human frailty as you're likely to find. Griffin (pictured inset) is uncannily accurate in her depiction of that peculiarly Irish emotional paralysis we're all familiar with. Maurice could be anyone's relative, a father or grandfather, or maybe the old man we think we know in the local, with the pint and the ball of malt in front of him, eternally propping up the bar.

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