Review: Fiction: Mixed Blessings by Peter Somerville- Large
Somerville Press, €14.99, tpbk, 256 pages
Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350
Peter Somerville-Large is best known for his non-fiction books on Ireland, including Dublin, Irish Eccentrics, The Grand Irish Tour, and The Coast of West Cork. He is now in his 80s and lives in Kilkenny.
In this elegant novel he charts the life of Paul Blake-Willoughby, born into the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy in 1929, the product of a mixed marriage, with an aristocratic Catholic soldier father and an eccentric staunchly Protestant mother.
Surprisingly, in the era of Ne Temere, the parents agree to let Paul choose his faith. Much of the early part of the story centres on the sometimes hilarious pitches made by both churches to recruit him.
At one point a priest ponders bringing in the heavy artillery of John Charles McQuaid. Enough said. Here, as elsewhere, there is a serious side to the author's whimsical and gentle approach.
Take elements of The Irish RM, Brideshead Revisited and PG Wodehouse and set them against the background of De Valera's Ireland.
It is all there, the 1940s and 1950s, in evocative detail, or just hinted at. Ireland during World War Two: the rationing, the lack of basics, the mounds of turf in the Phoenix Park, cars modified to run on charcoal.
Paul's boarding school, with its privations, bullying and caste system, will strike a chord with many. There are intimations too of sexual abuse, while the Magdalene homes are treated as a source of cheap labour.
Paul's big house, a decaying mansion too expensive to repair, is portrayed in all its awfulness: too cold to heat, a leaking roof and infested with vermin. The family share it with servants, dogs, cats and a parrot.
The servants come and go, knowing their place, for class distinctions are paramount, with one hilarious exception. Friend-ships are confined to persons of similar class, which in the book's case include some memorable and eccentric personalities, none more so than Paul's mother.
The story explores themes of snobbery, bigotry and infidelity and is peppered with outrageous jokes, remarks and occurrences. The author's eye is sympathetic but incisive. Splendid and highly recommended.