Tuesday 21 November 2017

Family, failure and regret

Every Single Minute - Hugo Hamilton, 4th Estate, €21.45

BLEND: The memoir of late Irish writer Nuala O’Faolain provides the material for much of Hugo Hamilton’s roman a clef. Photo: Eamonn Farrell.
BLEND: The memoir of late Irish writer Nuala O’Faolain provides the material for much of Hugo Hamilton’s roman a clef. Photo: Eamonn Farrell.

J P O'Malley

HUGO Hamilton and the late Nuala O'Faolain have much in common. Both published best-selling memoirs dealing with their unusual and traumatic childhoods.

Hamilton was brought up in a household where speaking English was considered a crime, punishable by a beating from his ultra-nationalist, authoritarian and culturally puritanical father. He also had to deal with the fact that his mother was German which, in a conservative and homogeneous 1950s Dublin, wasn't an easy task.

It left him with accusations from his fellow classmates that he was a Nazi sympathiser. Thus, feelings of alienation began to haunt him in this slightly amorphous cultural no man's land.

His memoir, The Speckled People, was praised by critics for eschewing cliches typical of the childhood misery memoir, which tends to celebrate a romantic Ireland, backed up with tales of drink, poverty, and religion.

O'Faolain's memoir, Are You Somebody?, did contain many references to alcohol. However, she too wrote about an Ireland that was silenced in the collective national narrative. O'Faolain's father was a successful journalist. He was also a serial womaniser, rarely at home to attend to his nine children, and drove his wife to a life on the bottle.

The O'Faolain household had the outward appearance of middle-class respectability, but the reality was an impoverished family, where love or affection was rarely seen by any of the children.

In Every Single Minute – using the roman a clef format – Hamilton cleverly amalgamates elements of both tales just mentioned, blending them into a single fictional story. The end result is a concise, yet extremely touching novel, about family, failure, and regret.

The narrative is told in the first person by Liam, a middle-aged Dublin man, who recalls a short journey he took to Berlin with Una, a famous Irish writer. The memorable sojourn takes place over a few days and, crucially, they are Una's last moments before her terminal illness comes to an end.

Most of the book happens through vivid memories that are recalled from conversations Liam and Una share as they saunter by various parks and historical monuments in Berlin. Setting the book in the historical city, with its constant reminders of death and destruction, acts like a catalyst for much of Liam and Una's verbal exchanges.

The more that Una discusses her past, the greater insight we get into the guilt she has suffered when thinking about her younger brother, Jimmy, who died from alcoholism. (Two of O'Faolain's siblings did actually die from alcohol-related diseases.)

When Liam confides in Una, he recalls a story from his childhood, which involves his uncle, a priest, who fell in love with his first cousin. This episode, we are told, led to long periods of anxiety, shame and silences in Liam's childhood.

Hamilton writes in a conversational, sparse, undescriptive, and extremely controlled tone to keep the novel's steady rhythm in check. Still, there are moments when he loosens his pen from this tight structure, and produces passages where the mythical and poetic collide.

The novel flows with a diction and clarity that is a joy to read. Describing an episode where Liam and his brother get lost walking through rural Cork, the narrator explains how: "It was like a silent country we were walking through. We cut in off the road where the field came to an end and the bog took over. The bog was covered in heather, like a complicated softness under my feet."

Other high points of the novel come about through dialogue, which tends to have a penchant for the aphoristic, particularly when Una is speaking. Some of her opinions on the art of creativity are particularly fascinating. We are told how "nothing is invented, only things that have already happened in some way or another". Or how every writer "needs a certain amount of rage to succeed".

As with all novels that are loosely based on real events, the reader's interpretation of the author's characters can be problematic, because they are clouded with previous knowledge they possess about the person's life. But this is a small complaint about the genre, rather than the book itself.

Like much of his previous work, Hamilton dares in this novel to explore – to paraphrase the Irish poet Eavan Boland – how history is the official version of people's lives, while the past, on the other hand, is the place where the real material for a writer lies: in shadows, losses, and silences.

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