Knockfane: Soapy, enjoyable flow to Homan Potterton's debut
Protestant-Catholic relations in the Republic have rightly been overshadowed by those in the North over the last century, and it is good that mutual suspicion has now been replaced with poking fun at one another (Catholics are guilt-ridden, Protestants are stingy, etc).
A stigma of sorts has remained from the era where Protestants were looked at as being blow-ins, intruders hiding the butcher's apron under their Irish tweed. Homan Potterton's debut novel makes good use of this prejudice as the 74-year-old charts the fortunes of a landed Protestant household in a post-independence Ireland seeking to phase them out (so what if Protestant campaigners were instrumental in that independence).
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Shocked that locals do not view her family as Irish, one character argues that they've never even met an English person in their lives.
It is a potent setting to place us in, and with it comes all the sorts of antiquated concerns relating to titles, inheritance, illegitimate children, big houses and miffed siblings we don't seem to be able to get enough of. Potterton's two memoirs to date - Rathcormick and Who Do I Think I Am? - saw the former director of the National Gallery display an acute emotional intelligence and ear for gossipy intrigue, and both are put to work.
Using the family pile as the book title is apt given it's a chief cast member. Widower Willis Esdaile has cast out his son and heir Edward to kinspeople further south, leaving him to reside with his two daughters - the gentle Lydia and the forthright Julia.
When Willis dies and the three siblings are reunited to see to his legal affairs, they discover more about the type of person Willis was and the skeletons rattling in the Esdaile family closet.
This is to give a broad overview of a novel with a soapy, episodic flow that is not unenjoyable. Potterton is a natural yarn-spinner. He arranges a vivid backdrop as his characters endure the kind of ordeals only families can manufacture, while his own rural upbringing in a starkly different Ireland is richly brought to bear. There are falling-outs, falling-ins, and mysterious knocks on the door, but underlining the juicy drama is the tragedy of a society obsessed with what the neighbours might say.