'When All Is Said' - Intimate character study of an elderly man looking back on his life
Fiction: When All is Said, Anne Griffin, Sceptre, hardback, 272 pages, €16
At one point in Anne Griffin's first novel, the narrator reflects on an Irish kind of love that is "reserved and embarrassed by its own humanity". He's talking about the relationship between his late wife and her mother, but he could be talking about his own relationship with his son. An intimate character study of a wealthy 80-year-old Co Meath farmer, When All is Said is also a study of extreme reticence and self-sabotage, giving voice to a man who, in matters of the heart, has all too often chosen to remain silent.
On the second anniversary of his wife's death, Maurice Hannigan sits in the bar of the Rainsford House Hotel in Co Meath. His relationship with the hotel is long and intricate and the setting allows swathes of his story to emerge.
Maurice has put a lot of thought into planning the evening, secretly booking the honeymoon suite. He will have five drinks, toast the five people he has cared about the most - his brother, sister-in-law, stillborn daughter, son and wife - and then kill himself. But his past rather than his intended suicide dominates the novel, which is addressed to his son, Kevin. Wisely, Griffin does not overuse the second-person address; for pages at a time it becomes almost incidental, but it's a way into Maurice's head - and as Kevin knows next to nothing about his father's inner life, he is a good stand-in for the reader.
Slowly - and the novel is reflective, purposefully unhurried - it becomes clearer why Maurice has viewed the world through a jaundiced eye.
Unable to master reading - later he finds out he has dyslexia - he leaves school at the age of 10 and goes to work for the Dollards, the family who own the big house that becomes the Rainsford House Hotel. He is violently mistreated by the Dollards - especially by young Thomas Dollard - and he steals an extremely valuable coin from them.
The theft leads to Thomas being sent away and disinherited. Not long afterwards, Maurice's beloved brother dies of TB.
Though it's flagged as being central, the stolen coin is more of a distraction than a necessary plot point or metaphor in the novel.
In a novel grounded in authenticity, the sequence of events triggered by Maurice's transgression strains credibility and because Maurice is never a suspect, the stakes around the theft are relatively low.
Griffin is interested in exploring attitudes towards wealth but she does this anyway, in other ways.
As a young man, Maurice begins to buy up land, including some Dollard land, for "criminally small payments". This rampant acquisition, fuelled by revenge as well as financial ambition, might have been enough to feed the guilt that influenced some of his later decisions.
Griffin's strength is in voice and in the rhythm of her prose, which is rich without being overwritten. A winner of the John McGahern Award for Literature, she fits into the Irish lyrical tradition - Maurice could have come out of a McGahern story - but When All is Said feels like a bridge between the past and the present, Maurice's belated loquacity breaking open that familiar Irish silence.
As soon as he begins speaking, his intelligence and perceptiveness are evident, his emotional literacy all the more poignant because of how he has pushed people away. Likeable because of his flaws, he is enmeshed in torturous self-knowledge and his regret is deeply moving.
"As soon as you walk in the door, sure it's like a bolt closes over my mouth," he tells his son.
Because Maurice is so vivid, other characters can seem idealised or demonised in comparison, filtered through nostalgia or long-standing anger.
The Dollards are like pantomime baddies, though later Maurice questions aspects of his memory - something that Griffin could have focused on more. But she is excellent at interrogating the complexity of Maurice's barriers. His silence can be honest as well as potentially harmful and this is captured perfectly when, despite himself, he agrees to try a bingo afternoon for older people. He leaves almost immediately: "Unable for the lie of a man I would have to become to make my way into their circle."
It's Maurice at his best, worst and most real, and it's a testament to Griffin's talent that she paints such a complete portrait of a man whose contrariness disguises his stoicism.
By the end of the novel his humanity is clear; he has made himself known.