Monday 18 December 2017

Coffey lays bare the fragmented and vulnerable with delicacy and panache

Margaret Carragher

The Incredible Life

of Jonathan Doe

Carol Coffey

Poolbeg, €16.99

The directive to 'write about what you know' serves author Carol Coffey well. With a background in special needs education and geriatric care, Coffey has spent much of her life working with the physically and emotionally vulnerable; but it was only following major surgery some years ago that she found the time and space for creative writing, inspired by her work experience. Coffey's resulting trio of novels The Butterfly State, The Penance Room and Winter Flowers, all of which explore health and social issues central to her working life, were met with critical acclaim.

Now she's back with more of the same.

Set in New Jersey with occasional forays into New York and Pennsylvania, The Incredible Life of Jonathan Doe is a multilayered tale involving John Doe, an emotionally vulnerable man who lives in a homeless shelter in Dover, New Jersey, and whose past seems a mystery to all but himself.

When, following a prison sentence for drink-driving, Irish-American Brendan Martin comes to Dover to complete his community service, he meets and is instantly taken with the gently eccentric Doe, whose colourful tales of a blissfully happy childhood in rural Virginia, though evidently real to himself, are dismissed as psychotic ramblings by the mental health professionals assigned to his case.

Brendan, though, isn't convinced; and intrigued by Doe's portrayal of a childhood so unlike his own in rural Ireland, he sets about piecing together the confused man's fragmented memories.

But the more Brendan delves into his new friend's past, the greater its mystery appears. If, as Doe claims, he was born and lovingly raised in Virginia, how to explain why he was found, unkempt, malnourished and amnesic on the streets of New York? How to account for the shocking evidence of physical abuse on his body? Or explain why, when traumatised, he reverts to Spanish as a first language? There's also the inescapable fact that the address Doe claims as his own – Newsart, Virginia – does not exist.

But even as Brendan seeks to make sense of Doe's past, he finds himself grappling with his own when his flinty mother Patricia, whom Brendan blames for his own miserable childhood, arrives in Dover where Brendan is living with his maternal uncle Frank, a retired cop charged with the task of supervising his errant nephew's community service.

In the emotionally charged atmosphere of Frank's family home, long-held grievances are aired and dark secrets revealed. Struggling beneath the weight of his own newly discovered past can Brendan possibly unearth that of his friend Doe? Or should he even try? Is the past a foreign country best avoided?

Coffey has a remarkable ability to lay bare the souls of the characters who inhabit her fictional landscape; and for all their myriad faults, failings and complexities, none is beyond redemption.

Explaining what informs and motivates her writing, Coffey says: "I have worked for many years with people who for one reason or another have struggled with life. This is what I know about."

She also knows how to tell a damned good tale.

Irish Independent

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