Saturday 20 January 2018

When stage dreams of stardom turn to dust

Fiction: Edith & Oliver, Michèle Forbes, W&N, hdbk, 400 pages, €20.99

Michele Forbes: lyrical language
Michele Forbes: lyrical language
Edith and Oliver by Michele Forbes

Edith & Oliver is the second novel from Irish author and actress Michèle Forbes, after her well-received Ghost Moth in 2014. That latter part of her job title is key to this follow-up, which it centres on the world of entertainment.

In 1906 Belfast, we meet Oliver Fleck, an illusionist. (Not a magician - he crossly, humorously corrects people who make that faux pas.) Oliver has just met Edith Foster: a woman of "good stock", to use a suitably stuffy archaism, who plays piano accompaniment in music halls.

After some amusing misunderstandings, they fall in love. She is smart, generous, slightly kooky. He's talented and very ambitious. They have a cute, sweet relationship; he affectionately calls her Madame Defarge, after Tale of Two Cities.

They move to Huddersfield in Yorkshire where Edith gives birth to twins - Archie and Agna - and Oliver tours his act around northern England, Northern Ireland and Scotland. One of his illusions in particular, The Appearing Woman, is a smash with audiences. Fame and fortune beckon for Oliver, they seem inevitable. Then life, as it tends to do, gets in the way.

The arrival of motion pictures means far less of an audience for live theatre. Oliver is also beset by misfortune: some of it, admittedly, of his own making.

He's a troubled man, damaged by a difficult childhood: his mother died in a tragic accident, his stern father basically disappeared after sliding into alcoholism. His brother Edwin is now cold and distant.

The gigs dry up; the venues become smaller, shabbier. Finally - by the early 1920s - Oliver packs it in and gets work as a Belfast carpenter (all those set-building skills come in handy).

I won't reveal much more, plot-wise, so as not to spoil the surprise. Suffice to say, further misery awaits Edith and (mostly) Oliver. If I had one major criticism of this otherwise fine book, it's that the despair and calamity just don't ease up.

A close friend dies in World War I. A youngster suffers serious injury. Oliver runs afoul of criminal elements. Lives are threatened, felonies committed. Poor Edith is patiently, saintly, enduring all of this.

By the end I did rather feel, whatever bad thing could possibly happen, it would happen. However, there is redemption, too, even a little happiness - or at least the hope of it.

And Edith & Oliver is a very well-written novel. Forbes' use of language is lyrical and evocative: you can almost taste the food, feel the chill of dreary boarding-houses, hear the applause or jeers of theatre audiences. For fans of historical fiction with an appreciation of fine writing, I'd definitely recommend it. Just don't expect a happy ending (or middle, or beginning).

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