Saturday 7 December 2019

Books: Falling apart in an ancestral pile in wild Donegal

Black Lake, Johanna Lane Tinder Press, tpbk, £13.99, 224 pages

Georgian House on 180 acres, Tuam, Co Galway
Georgian House on 180 acres, Tuam, Co Galway
Johanna Lane
Black Lake
Lorraine Courtney

Lorraine Courtney

From Maria Edgeworth to Elizabeth Bowen and Jennifer Johnston, Irish writers have been continually attracted to the Big House setting. Now, Johanna Lane joins the tradition with her beautiful debut novel.

Born in Ireland, Lane studied English in Scotland and the US and now teaches creative writing in New York, where she has lived for the past 10 years.

In this contemporary novel John Campbell is encumbered with a crumbling ancestral pile in wildest Donegal at a time when there is no longer any power or wealth left in aristocracy. The big house has been in his family for 150 years but he can't keep it going any longer.

His dilemma is one that faces the current generation of aristocrats who have inherited large houses and don't quite know what to do with them, especially if they haven't also inherited the wherewithal to look after them.

Acknowledging his penury and to avoid selling, John decides to open Dunlough's doors to the public and move his wife, Dublin-born Marianne, and their two children, from their privileged if somewhat shabby grand home to a damp cottage on the estate.

Ensconced in the small cottage, the cracks in the family's already tenuous relationships begin to emerge.

Lane perfectly charts the mixed loyalties and tensions that flourish within a marriage. By far the most interesting feature is the way she enters so completely into her characters' private worlds of thought and action.

John tells us how: "There had to be unsaid things between husbands and wives, and he had learnt that, though these were the things that saved you, they separated you too."

Marianne confides how: "I still thought he was doing me a favour by marrying me and bringing me to this place."

Meanwhile, the children, Phillip and Francis, try to pay more attention to the games and rituals of childhood. A tragic accident then accelerates the endgame.

This is a book about the clash of obligation and what someone might want to do with their own life, and how inheritance can often be a form of imprisonment.

Lane creates an intoxicating sense of place: "It is not difficult to think of the house as a consciousness, a repository of events, its breath whistling through the walls, our lives playing over and over again in its memory."

The idea of house-as-character isn't a new one. Countless dramas have been played out against the roaring fireplaces of houses like Brideshead and Pemberley. But she does it well.

Here also, a thrilling dexterity is added with points of view that draw us deep into each character's mind and compensates for any lack of kinesis in the set-up. Lane's prose is graceful, textured and her elegant style reflects the Campbell's glazed, retrograde world. You might find yourself wishing she'd clipped some of the numerous longuers but this is a book about passivity, stasis and the long road to extinction.

Available with free P&P on www.kennys. ie or by calling 091 709 350

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