Saturday 16 December 2017

Review: Fiction: All Gods Dead by Marian O’Neill

New Island, €13.99
Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350

It's some shock to two middle-aged daughters -- earnest bourgeois Dublin grandmothers -- to hear their meandering nonagenarian mother, Brigit, mouth profanities as she awaits her end in a Dublin nursing home.

She had appeared to be the picture of middle-class respectability. So where did all this come from?

They have no inkling whatsoever of the grim fairytale of their mother's previously secret journey from chastity to perversity, outlined in the book in the internal ramblings in her head. All they hear is the occasional overt sexual reference or foul word that comes from her mouth.

Brigit's internal story, however, tells us that at 16 she fled the mean gentility of Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire) to answer the roar of the 1920s and 1930s, mostly in Paris and later in Berlin -- before returning to Ireland to settle for domesticity and the dull barrister that fathered her daughters.

O'Neill's explanation for Brigit's escapades is that her generation were convinced that their parents' rules, wealth and religion were past their sell-by date. All their gods were dead. So the young created their own.

The gods that Brigit invents are the fifty shades of decadence associated with the freewheeling artists who colonised Paris in the 1920s: especially Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, whom Brigit meets just after The Great Gatsby was published; and Ernest Hemingway, with his wife Hadley. Brigit first dismisses her as tediously middle-class, but then befriends her.

Edith Wharton makes a guest appearance in a memorably withering scene.

Robert McAlmon, a minor American prose writer of the period, is Brigit's sometime friend and link to those whose lifestyle she shares, though not their literary passion.

Their Paris is a frenetic city of broad beds, 'exotic' dancers, opium and recklessly libidinous encounters.

Brigit is savvy enough to find a wealthy American, Phil, to keep her while she learns the hues of hedonism.

He is the epitome of American expansiveness, but is ultimately self-destructive. He's upfront in admitting that he has no notion of marrying Brigit. And that's fine with her.

She does find stomach-lurching, sense-stinging love (her description) -- briefly -- with an artist called Pablo Picasso, but he moves on.

To earn a crust Brigit turns her hand to the stage, the bar and eventually, the whorehouse. She even runs away with the circus and witnesses fascist brutality in Berlin. Her black despair and twinges of guilt are occasionally evident, but the novel does not dwell on introspection.

It's quite a story, a million miles from the quiet respectability of south Dublin that Brigit came back to and became part of, blending in despite her recent experiences.

The book's exploits are sometimes improbable; but then so were the no-holds-barred antics of the Lost Generation.

O'Neill's strategy of inserting her anti-heroine into episodes filched from infamous lives works well, and the book ends with Brigit's daughters awakening to their mother's manipulation of their lives, though having no clue as to her racy past.

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