Thursday 12 December 2019

Books: The disappeared and those left behind to grieve

Where They Lie, Mary O'Donnell, New Island Books, €13.99

Mary O'Donnell
Mary O'Donnell
'Where They Lie' by Mary O'Donnell

David Robbins

Timing, while not quite everything in writing, certainly helps. Perhaps poet Mary O'Donnell permitted herself a little smile when she discovered that her new book about the disappeared was coming out so soon after the Gerry Adams arrest and questioning over the disappearance of Jean McConville.

Her novel, however, is not dependent on current events for its relevance. It is a timeless story of loss, grief and tribal loyalties. It happens to be set in post-Good Friday Agreement Belfast, but its themes are universal.

Gerda is a journalist on compassionate leave from her broadcast company because she was unlucky enough to be present when two brothers – friends of hers since childhood – were tortured and abducted by a republican gang.

The novel opens with the ringing of a phone in Gerda's house. A man called Cox might know where the brothers are buried. Their discussions are coded, sometimes long and almost philosophical, sometimes abrupt and bitter.

It is a kind of dance that the story keeps returning to; Cox advances and retreats, circles and evades, but eventually, the music stops and Gerda and Cox meet in a border-town tea shop.

Other characters step forward into the centre of the dancefloor from time to time; it's a feature of the novel that the point of view moves around often, but this is seamlessly achieved and never feels contrived.

So we see the situation through the eyes of Gideon, Gerda's brother, a well-meaning but ineffectual man, tribally Protestant but intellectually secular.

Alison, sister of the missing men, is married to Gideon. She is a wonderful character, a hard-as-flint Protestant, yet "soft as melted butter underneath".

Then there's Niall, Gerda's on-off lover who lives in Dublin but teaches Irish to Catholic housewives in Belfast.

O'Donnell uses these characters in turn to explore a range of perspectives on the social and cultural tensions of life in the North. She is a beautiful observer of the minutiae of social distinction.

Having grown up in a Border town herself, O'Donnell is fully attuned to the markers of tribal allegiance.

There is a wonderful set piece in which Niall accompanies Alison to her Jehovah's witness service: "People glanced at him, knowing him to be a stranger. He did not have to open his mouth for them to know that everyone there read with complete fluency the subtle and accidental language of his origins."

The story moves with pace and tension. The amiable and universally mourned twin brothers, Harry and Sam, may not have been quite what they seemed.

Family tensions are also ratcheted higher. Gerda, already teetering on the verge of complete breakdown, comes under ever more extreme pressure.

Gerda and Niall are interesting characters, but in Alison, devout, prim yet surprisingly carnal, O'Donnell has created a wonderful portrait of a certain type of Protestant.

Where They Lie is beautifully plotted, but it is the exploration of difference – between North and South, between different shades of cultural conformism – that remains with the reader.

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