Tuesday 20 February 2018

When a mid-life crisis turns into murder in small-town Ireland

Slipping by John Toomey
Slipping by John Toomey

John Boland

John Toomey's third novel concerns the murder of a man's wife. That's not giving the game away as it's mentioned on the book's first page. Or, rather, we're told that a provincial newspaper has run a story titled LOCAL MAN CHARGED WITH UXORICIDE, which is not a term I can recall being used during all my years in journalism, and certainly not in a headline. Yet, somehow, it's oddly appropriate to the character of 49-year-old teacher Albert Jackson, whose thoughts we share for most of the novel's length.

He's awfully fond of arch phrases, whether bemoaning the "incessant aural deluge" of married life with wife Val, pondering excuses "proffered" by parents of the boys he teaches, or recalling that banter "had always alighted easily" during family dinners.

With such linguistic flourishes, he could well be the narrator of a minor John Banville novel.

Albert's a distinctly odd fish, not least in his attitude to the rest of humanity. "People disgust me," he tells us early on, while his own parents and siblings are "idiots" and "automatons" who are "too dull to be alive".

Then there's wife Val, whose need "to fill the silences became more pronounced and inane" as the marriage progressed, unlike young teaching colleague Aimee, who was a "simulacrum of perfection" and for whom he develops a middle-aged crush that leads to fantasies about their future together and contributes to his murderous resolve.

Yet despite his creepiness, Albert is an intriguing, even engaging, narrator and the book is at its best when we're privy to his confidences. However, the author has opted for a framing device whereby novelist Charlie Vaughan is hired both to make sense of the incarcerated Albert's action and to fashion a novel from the available facts, and it's difficult to see what this adds to the basic story.

Indeed, the precise nature of Charlie's role is never quite clear. He would "dig deep into Albert Jackson's soul", he tells us, and the resultant novel "might just be the only thing that can plead on his behalf", but the reader remains as unconvinced by Charlie's novelistic abilities as he is himself.

"You're a writer, aren't you?" psychiatrist Marko Novak inquires when they first meet. "Barely," he replies.

Novak is none too convincing, either. During his first encounter with Charlie, the psychiatrist both "scoffed" and "sneered", and we're left wondering at such gratuitous rudeness from a mental health professional who's supposed to be merely acting as a go-between on behalf of his locked-up patient.

And there are other puzzling aspects, not least when Charlie meets up with Albert's daughter, Abigail, whose father wants to persuade both her and son Jake that he's "not a monster". Charlie is immediately entranced by Abigail's "unadorned beauty" and by the instant bond that he detects between them, but that goes nowhere, while towards the end of the novel, Charlie himself vanishes entirely as Albert resumes and completes the story he's been telling us.

That story has been engrossing and Toomey tells it very well, with an acute eye for the detail of Irish small-town life, with many sardonic asides, and with arresting insights into a mind at the end of its tether. But structurally, the book leaves something to be desired.

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