There are two main stories at the heart of Kathleen MacMahon's third novel, Nothing But Blue Sky.
One naturally muscles its way to centre stage: that of David Dowling, a television journalist whose life is torn apart when his wife, Mary Rose, is killed in a plane accident. The message here is that things can come from leftfield. Life can be business as usual and then that one-in-a-million thing can happen, and the world can capsize around you. (Don't we know it, cries the pandemic-stricken reader.)
In David's case, unlikely things keep happening. His life touched by the Nice attacks, the Bataclan tragedy, the bombing of a café in Jemaa el-Fnaa in Morocco and more. But until the death of Mary Rose, he never considers himself vulnerable to the forces of chance. He reckons that even for those who are close to such incidents, "it was still almost impossible to beat the statistics and become the victim of a terrorist attack". His scepticism serves the purpose of making the reader believe in the often implausibly random occurrences in the book. We rail against his doubt, and nod our heads when, after Mary Rose's death, he realises: "The only number that counts is one. One person, in one place, at one moment in time."
The death of a wife as the catalyst for a protagonist's inner change is a slightly "plotty" plot device, but here the world is built so carefully and the characters rendered so believably that it works. The narrative turns around David's return to Aiguaclara, a village on the Costa Brava where he and Mary Rose used to holiday each year. "The hope I had, in going back," he tells us, is that "in Aiguaclara there might be some memory of our lives together that I had until then forgotten."
The Spanish village, with its "slash of sandy beach" and "shock of Batik shore" serves its purpose as a place of pilgrimage and healing. There, David reflects on his former life, discovering things he never knew or considered about his wife, and learns to come to terms with life without her,
David's story, in a way, is a fairy tale. It begins with death but goes on. Following the death of Mary Rose, the things that come from leftfield are full of hope and wonder. He strikes up an unlikely friendship with a woman whose life is also marked by loss. A past lover gets in contact with life-changing news. If chance can ruin your life, it can also mend it, his story seems to say. There is optimism. There can be a happily ever after.
But what of that second story, hiding modestly beneath? The story of Mary Rose. Unlike David, who is a cynic and a grump, she is a bright and cheery optimist. She is a neonatal nurse who brings joy to all who cross her path, an ideal daughter and sister and a loving wife. She is, you could say, the archetype of the perfect woman.
Mary Rose does not have David's luck. The only things that come out of leftfield for her are bad. She longs to be a mother but can't. She is terrified of flying and ends up dying on a plane.
David thinks he loves her, but in truth he loves her as an idol and not as a human being. At one point, he describes her admiringly as she lies on the hotel bed: "With her fair hair streaked like seaweed across her face, she was a mermaid trapped in my nets. I could hardly believe she was mine to keep."
Of course, like a mermaid, like a sleeping beauty, the defining aspect of Mary Rose's fairy tale is that she is trapped. She doesn't have a voice, she doesn't have any agency; she is, for the whole book, dead.
It is only in death that Mary Rose has any power over David; only by dying that she can make him come to the realisation that she was suffering after years of trying in vain to have children; a desire about which he was indifferent. Her death changes his life by making him a better person, but there is no redemption for her.
This central trap hangs over the book. There's something tainted about the optimism afforded to David, since it is never gifted to Mary Rose. David's luck, his friend Deborah remarks, is like "life's last hilarious joke, at the expense of women".
Indeed, this might be the definition of a fairy-tale ending: a joke at the expense of women. The clash of David's and Mary Rose's stories adds an interesting layer to an already compelling book. The colour may change, depending on how you look at it.