Monday 22 July 2019

O'Donnell's republished debut shows little has changed in Ireland

Fiction: The Light Makers Mary O'Donnell, 451 Editions, €12.95

Mary O'Donnell
Mary O'Donnell
The Light Makers
Deirdre Conroy

Deirdre Conroy

Mary O'Donnell's debut novel The Light Makers was first published by Poolbeg Press in 1992 and quickly became a bestseller. Why publish again 25 years later? For very good reason, I suggest. When you read this version of 1980s Dublin, it is hard to believe how little Ireland has changed for women in 25 years.

Hanna Troy is a busy photojournalist and is killing time on St Stephen's Green before her appointment at The Women's Centre.

The echo of her lonely voice resonates throughout this tale as she recalls her childhood, the odd romance of her teenage years and reflects on the recent trauma in her marriage.

She is married to Sam, an architect of the egotistical style, whose mind is filled with light and glass. Feeling 'cast off by life' she is weighed down by the pressure to become pregnant, unsuccessful despite serial fertility checks, and Sam refusing to be tested.

Walking down Grafton Street, she is absorbed by the Diceman's costume and make-up - Thom McGinty, known as The Diceman, was an icon of his time, a performance artist and provocateur before diversity was as celebrated as it is today.

This was a time when awareness of climate change was minimal, but rainforest deforestation and endangered species was topical.

Hanna contemplates her own situation and wonders if there is a planned obsolescence of the human species.

Her mind is subsumed by the social incompleteness of childlessness of that time. It does not appear to be the same these days, when so many bright, competent women have chosen not to have children - will that affect our legacy? Perhaps Hanna's prescience is yet to be seen.

The poetic style of O'Donnell, pictured left, penetrates the prose as Hanna evinces her melancholy: "The absence of progeny dogs humanity like the darkest curse.

"To be made barren, to be unmanned, to be cut at the loins is the ancient word-wish of warlocks, of bitter peasants whom people feared. It is to be cut at the root like a bonsai tree, unable to flower to largeness."

At The Woman's Centre, she observes some 'scraps of information' in pamphlets, 'four thousand women will travel from Ireland to England to have an abortion this year'... 'Our population will be top-heavy with geriatric people by the time the present younger generation has reached old age'. That time is almost now.

What gives this story its power is the compelling voice of Hanna. She is familiar, both of her time and ahead of her time. She is brave, for a woman cheated on by nature and her husband. As a character, she is good company.

I rarely say a book is 'unputdownable' but this is one.

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