Sunday 17 December 2017

Boom lens: portraits of middle age after the Tiger

Mary Shine-Thompson salutes author Deirdre Madden's triumphant new novel

Outstanding: Deirdre Madden

Mary Shine-Thompson

Deirdre Madden's ninth novel, Time Present and Time Past, is set literally at the dead centre of her characters' lives: at the phase of middle age when they are halfway to the grave.

Fintan, a Dublin lawyer, and his fashionista sister Martina can either shuffle regretfully off the moral coil, or try to fathom how they arrived at this juncture in their lives.

Fintan is a mild man with modest ambitions, living in interesting, if unsettling, times. The year is 2006, the place, Dublin, awash with affluence. Few realise what's ahead. Being an anxious type, Fintan has some inkling – but no more than that. As his waistband thickens and his cholesterol rises, the ghosts of time past and future crowd in on him.

So when his little daughter Lucy inquires, "When did the world become coloured?" as they flick through old photographs, stolid Fintan wonders how people make sense of their memories. Soon, people and episodes from his past well up unbidden.

Unknown to him, his sister Martina too is dwelling on earlier days; some good, some gruesome. By combining their reminiscences, we assemble an album of photographs of their shared childhood and separate adulthood.

Fintan's newfound interest in old photographic techniques enables him to talk about how people capture images, and how they shape – and colour– them.

By the standards of the boom years, Fintan is only a so-so success, living a blamelessly bourgeois existence, untouched by frantic fantasies. He is happily married, with two student sons and little Lucy. While he may lack the imagination necessary for grand-scale angst, he is edgy as he stares mortality in the eye.

Then he meets Conor, father of Lucy's playmate: a wounded, emotionally needy bachelor. This could have been me, Fintan realises.

He also realises that he knows little of Martina's story. She's the sophisticated one, returned from success in London to live with Aunt Beth in her museum of a home.

This house that time forgot is her unlikely refuge. As we learn about a grotesquely violent act in Martina's urbane London days, her singledom makes sense. Martina's history could have been mawkish or melodramatic; instead, it is one of Madden's great triumphs.

Fintan and Martina head north to their grandparents' home, now owned by their cousin Edward. But it too is changed utterly: Edward has levelled it and replaced it with a 'decent modern house'.

Fintan imagines the visit will trigger a rush of emotions. But he feels nothing. He and Martina agree that you can't really visit the past. It's another, heavily policed, country. That leaves only the future, and it's just as alien.

Few would imagine that relationships between middle-aged, middle-class siblings, their elderly mother and dead generations could be so compelling.

But then nobody can conjure an apparently nondescript character capable of profound insight better than Madden. Molly in Molly Fox's Birthday (Madden's last book, her second novel shortlisted for the Orange Prize) was another such triumph.

This is an exalting story that celebrates the survival of fragile folk, and revels in the mysteries of the commonplace. An outstanding book.

Irish Independent

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