Kitchen sink drama stresses grand themes
Fiction: The Walk Home Rachel Seiffert VIirago, pbk, £14.99, 291 pages
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Rachel Seiffert knows a thing or two about crossing cultural divides – she is the daughter of a German mother and Australian father. Her debut novel, The Dark Room, was shortlisted for the Booker in 2001 and she is back now with her third novel.
The Walk Home deals with a familiar theme for Irish readers, that of the conflict between Northern Irish protestants and Catholics. But don't let that put you off. It may sound like an unoriginal premise for a novel, but in Seiffert's hands what we get is an engrossing domestic drama as much about family politics as it is about Northern Irish politics.
Seiffert's story is set between Scotland and Northern Ireland, and she switches between the present-day conflict within her young protagonist Stevie's family and back to the Northern Ireland of the 1990s.
The story moves back and forward between these two points in time, smoothly making connections between the characters and slowly making sense of why Stevie, now a teenager, has come to be sleeping on what is essentially a building site. Running the site is Polish immigrant Jozef, who is trying to make some money to win back his girlfriend.
We go back in time to discover how Stevie's parents met in Tyrone, when Graham was on a marching trip from Scotland with his Orange lodge. After a tryst in a field, the teenage Lindsey becomes pregnant with Stevie. Six weeks later, she arrives in Scotland to move in with Graham and his parents, Brenda and Malkey.
Seiffert's writing is both tightly controlled and almost orchestral in its sweep. You feel every emotion deeply, even as you are conscious of Seiffert deliberately drawing these emotions out. It's a strange but not unpleasant sensation, a bit like observing an operation on yourself while under anaesthetic. In this way, Seiffert's writing feels very unusual, with a rare duality of precise writing and big emotional impact.
She unfurls detail after detail, withholding a few key elements until the reader stumbles upon a realisation for themselves. Only then, with perfect timing, does Seiffert reveal a nugget confirming your suspicions. It's an enjoyable jigsaw puzzle for the reader.
Any book set in Northern Ireland in the 1990s must deal with sectarian hatred and cultural divisions, which The Walk Home certainly does. But what makes Seiffert's novel exceptional is that she does all of this through a story that always feels personal and never weighed down with political preaching or heavy historical research. This is a story about how familial damage reverberates through each generation, and this a rare novel – a family saga perfectly and enjoyably balanced between literary feat and kitchen sink drama.