Monday 20 November 2017

Homecoming to investigate clerical abuse case of childhood

Fiction: The Trout, Peter Cunningham, Sandstone Press, pbk, 280 pages, €10.99

Many twists and turns: Peter Cunningham
Many twists and turns: Peter Cunningham
The Trout by Peter Cunningham

John Boland

Near the outset of Peter Cunningham's new novel, you're invited to "put yourself into the mind of a trout" living two fathoms down in a river and thinking only of survival. So what to do when a shadow suddenly appears above the water? "You sit it out. If you stay down here, the danger will disappear. You do nothing."

The trout, it soon becomes clear, is both a fish and a metaphor, though more the latter than the former, so that when you're told an older trout "has all the time in the world to scrutinise his prey", you immediately think of the predatory Irish priest at the core of the novel's revelations.

But that's later in the book and in the meantime you have encountered narrator Alex, a retired Irish teacher living beside a lake in rural Ontario with his wife Kay, the couple having met each other as teenagers in Waterford, but domiciled in Canada for most of their adult lives.

Theirs is a seemingly idyllic existence, though Alex is having a battle with his literary agent over his second novel and is also disturbed by buried memories from his childhood back in rural Ireland - especially of a boy his own age called Terence whom he's never seen since.

So he visits the Waterford hinterland of his youth and pieces together what happened - a sordid story of clerical sex abuse that had been aided and abetted, consciously or not, by Alex's severely conventional doctor father, who's now in an old people's home and won't talk to his son.

The reasons for this refusal remain somewhat unclear in a book that tries to juggle too many subplots - including that of an elderly Ontario neighbour who may or may not have been in the Mounties, and who may or may not have sinister designs on Alex, Kay and their grandson.

And meanwhile the trout metaphor becomes both increasingly insistent and somewhat strained, and is hardly justified by the fact that the loathsome priest had used trout fishing expeditions as a cover for his vile acts - you're informed that "fly fishing allows man to revert to his state of being a natural hunter and to stalk his quarry as he has done since memory began". (Confusingly, though, you're also told that the trout is "a beautiful creature", which makes the creature seem more like Terence than his nemesis).

By the end, you learn what happened to Terence and also to the paedophile priest, while the subplot involving the Ontario neighbour is also resolved to everyone's satisfaction - except, perhaps, that of the reader, who may feel that the late introduction of a suspected kidnapping has been somewhat artificially shoehorned into the narrative.

But Cunningham, who has previously written in a wide variety of fictional genres, tells his story well and the reader is never less than fascinated, and mostly engrossed, by its twists and turns.

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