Saturday 15 December 2018

The political and personal fail to gel in worthy novel

Fiction: Turning for Home, Barney Norris, Doubleday, hardback, 262 pages, €20.99

Earnest: Turning For Home is Barney Norris's second novel
Earnest: Turning For Home is Barney Norris's second novel
Turning for Home

John Boland

Barney Norris's novel begins as if its concerns are to be political, retired British civil servant Robert telling us at the outset about the taped confessions made by former IRA and loyalist combatants to Boston College researchers at the turn of the millennium.

Robert himself had been part of the North's sorry story, acting as a secret conduit between the IRA and the British government since the 1987 Enniskillen massacre and passing deniable information from one to the other. Yet if readers are seeking insights into the Troubles and its perpetrators, they'll be disappointed because it's not that kind of book, though what kind of book it means to be remains frustratingly unclear.

Is it about Robert, who narrates every second chapter and is reluctant host of his 80th birthday party on the day most of the action, such as it is, occurs? Or is it about his 25-year-old granddaughter Kate, who narrates every other chapter and who, we gradually discover, has endured a traumatic past?

If it's about the former, we learn little about his covert diplomacy beyond the fact that it involved secret meetings with republican-leaning academic and fellow-conduit Frank Dunn, whose knowledge of lethal IRA plans was more than he ever disclosed to Robert.

(Frank, who hasn't been in contact with Robert for more than 20 years, is now fearful of his former dealings with him and chooses the day of the party to express these fears to him in person and to reveal his prior knowledge of the bombing in Enniskillen, which comes as a shock to Robert).

We learn more about Robert's personal life, particularly his loving relationship with recently deceased wife Hattie, though in Robert's regretful reminiscences she registers as little more than a ghost.

Just as indistinct is Kate's mother, Hannah, who provokes a venom in her daughter ("I want to slap her, grab her by the ears, to scream") that seems entirely unrelated to what the woman has ever done to her. By contrast, Kate's father has lovingly got her through the bad times, and indeed she credits him with having saved her life, though again he fails to become a person in his own right. His intervention happened when Kate, reacting to a tragedy that befell her boyfriend, developed an eating disorder which led to anorexia and almost killed her. The same disorder, we learn in the book's acknowledgements, affected someone close to the author himself, and this may account for the vividness with which Kate's plight is described, but the reader may feel that this extended episode has strayed in from another novel.

But then this book is all over the place, never quite settling on a subject and less than persuasive when it tries to draw parallels between the political and the personal, as when Robert reflects towards the novel's end that "there ought to be truth and reconciliation in every stratum of the lives people live", and when Kate muses "what is needed is an amnesty, a forgetting" - and just in case we didn't get the message, "what might save us all is a way to put our lives behind us, and love facing into the future, not always turned back looking for the past".

Indeed, both Robert and Kate are prone to the kind of thoughts that seem indistinguishable from platitudes. "I have never been so old before", Robert reflects on his birthday, "and I will never be so young again". There's no answer to that, as Eric Morecambe was fond of saying. And pondering the Troubles, Robert offers about troubles in general, "everyone has their own, really, that's the secret to people".

Kate, for her part, is struck by the fact that "every decision a person makes happens in the context of the world they've come from" (well, yes) and later is moved to ponder, "it's all about time, that's what I've learned, that's what heals everything, clichéd as it sounds" - which, alas, doesn't make it any less clichéd.

This second novel by the 30-year-old Sussex-born author follows the much-praised Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain of 2016, and its worthiness is not in doubt. But its earnest and, indeed, kindly concerns can't conceal the fact that the writer hasn't found a convincing narrative in which to accommodate them and make them persuasive to the reader.

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