Monday 20 January 2020

Norton shines affectionate light on rural Ireland

Fiction: Holding, Graham Norton, Hodder & Stoughton, hdk, 310 pages, €16.50,

Debut: Graham Norton is a benevolent creator, who paints his characters with love, sympathy and empathy
Debut: Graham Norton is a benevolent creator, who paints his characters with love, sympathy and empathy
Holding by Graham Norton

Darragh McManus is pleasantly surprised by a 'very fine' murder-mystery which doubles up as a moving exploration of the lives of small-town Ireland

Celebrities who've written good fiction are vanishingly rare. Carrie Fisher's Postcards from the Edge was great, although a lot of that was autobiographical. Ethan Hawke wrote a few well-received novels, as did musician Willy Vlautin. It's hard to think of too many others, while on the flipside, Morrissey - bona fide lyrical genius of pop music - vomited out List of the Lost, one of the most surreally awful books I've ever encountered.

Thankfully, Graham Norton bucks the trend with some style in Holding, his debut work of fiction - this is a rather fine novel. I suppose we shouldn't be too surprised: his 2015 memoir The Life and Loves of a He Devil was excellent (and I say this as someone who generally hates autobiographies). It was funny and clever and insightful and, most of all, brilliantly written.

Holding is a much different beast tonally. The story takes place in the (invented) West Cork village of Duneen, where a body has been discovered by builders at a new housing development. Local garda PJ Collins begins to investigate, or rather trails along after Superintendent Linus Dunne, a hot-shot detective sent from Cork City.

Norton briskly and deftly sketches out the main characters and plot points. The land on which the remains were found used to be part of Burke's farm. Their son Tommy had disappeared 20 years previously, leaving behind two broken hearts in Duneen.

The first is Brid Riordan, his then-fiancée, now an unhappily married mother-of-two with a drinking problem. The second is Evelyn Ross, one of three spinster sisters who live in the local "big house"; her sister Florence is a teacher, but Evelyn and Abigail are cut off from society to greater or lesser degrees.

PJ, meanwhile, is shy and obese and feels pretty much like a failure in life; a fifty-something man who remains a nervous, self-conscious boy inside. There's also Mrs Meaney, his ageing housekeeper, who at first glance seems something between background colour and comic relief, but assumes a role of great significance as the story progresses.

So what we have here, on one level, is a small-town murder-mystery. Whose are the bones found by the builders? Whose are the tiny infant bones subsequently unearthed? Why did Tommy leave, all those years ago? Where did he go? Why has nobody heard of him since?

Come to think of it, why is Abigail Ross the only person who can recall seeing Tommy get the bus to Cork that fateful day? Is Evelyn right when she fingers Brid as Tommy's killer? Is Brid right to do the same back?

A good narrative set-up, and more than enough to make for a satisfying, enjoyable read. But Norton has taken this premise and done something more interesting, thoughtful, surprising and affecting than this reader was expecting.

While the story tips along nicely - assured pacing, rising tension, a sprinkle of crafty twists, and all plot strands tied up with clarity and logic - you realise gradually that the murder-mystery is a kind of camouflage. The author is really interested in examining the lives, especially the inner lives, of these people - and it's fascinating.

PJ is a great main character, a likeable semi-buffoon who's afraid of life to some extent, but whose big heart and innate decency shine through. Evelyn is complex and intriguing, Brid equally so but for very different reasons.

Even Detective Dunne turns out to be more than the swaggering a-hole he first appears.

As a native of Bandon and frequent return visitor, Norton clearly gets rural Ireland. Reading the blurb, you might be forgiven for assuming this will be a clichéd, 'Hollywood' version of an Irish small town.

Norton's too clever for that, though, too perceptive. Duneen feels like a real place, grounded in a real Ireland of 2016, peopled by real human beings.

Yes, there are secrets and intrigue and parochial gossip; the local church grounds and GAA pitch and national school are the main geographical foci. But the book remains real and authentic.

Norton doesn't, for example, overplay the religious aspects - indeed, one priest in a flashback is very progressive and practical - as so many Irish writers tend to do (often, I suspect, with an eye on how well this will sell abroad). Yet there is some religion in this place, albeit a half-hearted sort, as there is in actual Ireland.

What struck me most about Holding is how sincere it is. Surprising, maybe, coming from a guy famed for his arch, ironic approach to TV. But then you think of Norton's warm, witty radio show and newspaper agony aunt column, and it makes more sense.

There's a lot of love in this book, a lot of empathy and sympathy. Norton cares for these characters, you feel, in all their flawed humanity; like a benevolent creator, he wants the best for them and accepts, with heavy heart, that it probably won't happen.

One scene near the end - involving Mrs Meaney, taking place just after a burial - is one of the saddest, most moving things I've ever read. And written just so: low-key, unadorned, not yanking on the heartstrings but allowing the simple truth of events to work its power on the reader.

Did I say a "rather fine" novel? That should read "very fine". Graham Norton, you're wasted in television. More, please.

Darragh McManus's novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl

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