Tuesday 16 January 2018

Shadows of Secrecy & Silence

Liz McManus
Liz McManus
Carol Hunt

Carol Hunt

Two years ago, in the wake of the Savita Halappanavar tragedy, ex-politician Liz McManus wrote an opinion column for the Irish Independent entitled, "Culture of secrecy and silence brought us to this sorry place." In it, she described the slow pace of change in an ultra-conservative Ireland, where matters of female freedoms are concerned - particularly crisis pregnancies. Her second book, A Shadow in the Yard, set in the early 1970s in Donegal and Derry, also concentrates on these themes and how they affect her two protagonists; Rosaleen McAvady and her daughter Aoife.

Silence, secrecy, women and the choices they may or may not exercise are also topics that were central to McManus's political career. In an era when many women left school before the Leaving Cert and didn't work outside the home when they married, McManus was lucky to attend university in the early Sixties where she studied architecture. It was a very different Ireland then, she said recently; "I grew up in a context where the expectation of women was that we would get married, that we would make a good marriage, that we would not work after marriage."

The above conundrum is precisely what McManus' heroine Rosaleen - who also trained as an architect but is now a housewife - struggles with as we meet her in her stuffy car, collecting her children from school before heading back home to cook dinner for her husband: "'I like to see you bending down to the oven...' He came up beside me and patted my behind."

We already know that Rosaleen has suffered a violent death. In the opening pages of the book, her body is found by a neighbour with a past, Tom Mundy, out walking his dog. What we don't know is why or how it happened. Or who was involved. And oddly, this mystery seems almost secondary to the core issues of the book, those of loyalty, loneliness, independence and of course, secrecy - in Rosaleen's Ireland and that of her daughter.

The first part of the book, approximately three quarters, concentrates on the life of Rosaleen; her friendships, her frustrations as an educated woman who needs her husband's permission to work in her chosen career, her worries about pregnancy and her lack of choice. The second continues similar themes in the life of Aoife and deftly highlights how Irish society has progressed, slowly but inexorably being pulled out of its conservative bubble - reluctantly allowing its women more freedom and choices by the end of the last millennium.

Both these sections complement each other, and indeed, more focus on Aoife's story would have been welcome. What is jarring about the book is what it starts off as - a murder mystery set during the 'Troubles'. There seems little dramatic reason for it when one considers the overall narrative and themes of the book. Nor does it work in terms of dramatic tension. However, as a novel subtly and sympathetically uncovering the wants and needs of two women living 30 years apart in a country that has changed for the better, A Shadow in the Yard is a well-crafted, compelling read.

A Shadow in the Yard

Liz McManus

Ward River Press

€16.99

Dazzling collection from a master poet

One Thousand Things Worth Knowing

Paul Muldoon

Faber

£14.99

Paul Muldoon's first poetry collection, New Weather, was published in 1973, when he was just 20. At the time, Seamus Heaney, already famous after Death of a Naturalist (1966), taught Muldoon at Queen's in Belfast, and called him "the most promising poet to appear in Ireland for years''.

In the intervening decades, as Muldoon became one of the world's most revered post-war poets, Heaney remained his guide and champion. Muldoon's 12th collection, his first since Heaney's death in 2013, opens with Cuthbert and the Otters, a long, pain-flecked and varied elegy to his mentor.

Born in 1951 in Armagh, Muldoon has won the T S Eliot Prize and the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. He was the Oxford Professor of Poetry until 2004, is the current president of the Poetry Society, and lives in the United States, where he is poetry editor of The New Yorker. Muldoon gave the eulogy at Heaney's funeral, praising his "signal ability to make each of us feel connected not only to him but to one another".

One of the most exciting and uncompromising features of Muldoon's poetry is the way his writing combines snippets of the ancients (terracotta warriors, Benedictine nuns, the life of Moses) with up-to-the-minute vernacular and freshness (mash-ups and selfies). He excavates linguistic and historical treasures from across the centuries and shines a magnifying glass over his spoils.

Cuthbert and the Otters, based on the legend of St Cuthbert, pulses with admiration for Heaney's work, in particular the new versions of early literature and his emotional engagement with human history. One line is a complete and desolate sentence: "I cannot thole the thought of Seamus Heaney dead."

That line hits hard because it's one of few in the book with real, sudden clarity. Anyone already wary of opaque contemporary poetry may want to tread carefully here. Or, at least, play a game of how far you can get through a Muldoon poem without reaching for a dictionary. You might survive "darne" in the third line, feeling pretty smug, only to come unstuck by "flitch", "staithes", "sarabande", "frenum", "smolt", "skald" or "catafalque", all just a few lines on.

Muldoon has had complaints on this score before and has defended his writing of "difficult" poetry by saying he is writing "for a difficult age", drawing inspiration from the complexity of the Elizabethan and Metaphysical poets. With this collection, you get the impression that scarcely anything has proved more difficult for him to approach than the death of his mentor.

The cumulative effect of his obscure allusions is like a new mysterious breed of cryptic crossword clue. Muldoon anticipates incomprehension in places, and has some sport with words that sound alike but whose meanings slip into one another. Calamine, calomel and chamomile are mistaken for each other by characters in the poems, as are candelabras and chandeliers, despite the poet's insistence on the importance of knowing which is which.

The collection is dazzlingly complex. But amid the lengthy, lacy poems there are brief, primal sobs too. Pelt is a stinging vignette of rain rattling on a car roof, which Muldoon compares to the sound of holy water falling on a coffin lid.

Bereavement is almost everywhere. But with Heaney gone, these poems show what a master Muldoon is in his own right. One Thousand Things Worth Knowing is not friendly to readers in search of a quick rhyme. It's a mighty collection to be picked apart as you try to light a path through the verse. In that respect it's a lot like grief: it gnaws away at the edges of your brain long after you think you've put it aside.

128pp, Faber, Telegraph offer price: £12.99 (PLUS £1.95 p&p) 0844 871 1515 (RRP £14.99, ebook £12.81). Call 0844 871 1515 or see books.telegraph.co.uk

Charlotte Runcie

Sunday Independent

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