Tuesday 20 November 2018

Hold on tight for another whirl of small-town intrigue

Fiction: A Keeper Graham Norton Hodder & Stoughton, hardback, 323 pages, €22.50

Unusual twist: Norton's new book is smart, well-written and thoroughly entertaining. Photo: Sophia Spring
Unusual twist: Norton's new book is smart, well-written and thoroughly entertaining. Photo: Sophia Spring
A Keeper

Graham Norton's debut novel, 2016's Holding, was surprisingly excellent, though perhaps there shouldn't have been such surprise: his memoir The Life and Loves of a He Devil is outstandingly well-written, and his radio and newspaper work is intelligent and stylish.

A Keeper, Norton's follow-up, isn't quite in Holding's class, but it's still a fine piece of work, blending a clever, unpredictable and satisfying mystery storyline with a sensitive exploration of the hearts and minds of its characters.

The tale is told across a span of 45 years. In the present, we meet middle-aged Elizabeth Keane, returned from Manhattan to sort out the sale of her recently deceased mother's house in Buncarragh, a fictional small town in Kilkenny.

Elizabeth has lived in Manhattan for years, where she rears teenage son Zach after husband Elliot left her for another man. She teaches Romantic Poetry at Hunter College. Her life with Zach isn't bad, but life in its entirety is vaguely unsatisfying. And, feeling like a failure in all sorts of ways, she's dreading this return to the town she fled many years before.

In the 1970s, Elizabeth's mother Patricia lives alone in Buncarragh. Her own mother has recently died. Her chance at domestic happiness, a husband and children, seems to have passed her by. Encouraged by her pal Rosemary, Patricia puts a Lonely Hearts ad in a magazine. A West Cork farmer answers.

Patricia treks to Cork city where she meets the taciturn, socially inadequate Edward Foley. Their first meeting is almost unbearably awkward, but he seems kind and decent - and his letters to her are articulate, passionate and inspiring. Patricia agrees to visit him and his widowed mother Catherine at Castle House, the Foley farm outside Muirinish (another fictional place: this one an isolated coastal village).

Back in the present, Elizabeth discovers that her mother's will left her both the Buncarragh property and the house in Muirinish. She also finds love-letters written by her father, this Edward Foley, who her mother said had died when she was an infant. Patricia had returned to Buncarragh, babe in arms, after only a few months of marriage to a man nobody knew.

Who was he, really? What were the circumstances of her parents' courtship? Why did her mother never really speak about it all? Emboldened, and in some ways impelled by a desperate need that she doesn't fully understand, Elizabeth hits for Cork, hoping to solve the puzzle.

And back again to the 1970s, where Patricia's trip to Muirinish takes a very strange turn. I can't say any more than that; this, I accept, is annoying, but it would ruin the surprise, the shock even, of a totally unsuspected plot twist.

I read lots of crime fiction and reckon I've come across virtually all the twists and tricks in the genre. Here, though, Norton pulls something out of the bag that feels genuinely fresh - quite an achievement in itself.

Funnily enough, I'm not sure this particular narrative strand necessarily works; or at least, not completely. Again, I can't go into too many details, but for me, it struggles for plausibility. Admittedly, another reader may find it perfectly believable.

Ultimately, this wasn't enough of a bump in the road to prevent me from enjoying A Keeper.

As mentioned, the mystery is crafty, carefully constructed and, in the end, resolved well. And, as with Holding, where Norton really shines is in his understanding of, and compassion for, his characters. The presenter-turned-author really seems to get people and human nature. And from our perspective, there's the added pleasure of an author properly capturing Irish society and culture: from the way we talk to our intricate interactions, from the little details of life here to broader themes of what it is that makes Ireland different from anywhere else. This feels like an authentic Ireland; indeed, two authentic Irelands, one now and one then.

And I love the title, with its teeming assemblage of possible connotations. "A keeper" in the sense of a jailer or someone who watches over a place. Or in the sense of "he's a keeper": Mr Right, a man to hold on to. People keeping on going, keeping their counsel, keeping themselves to themselves, keeping schtum. And of course, keeping secrets.

Darragh McManus' books include Shiver the Whole Night Through and Polka Dot Girl

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