Review: Fiction: This is How it Ends by Kathleen MacMahon
Sphere, £14.99,pbk, 400 pages
Available withfree P&P onwww.kennys.ie or bycalling 091 709350
The big-bucks publishing deal may feel like a distant memory in these austere times but it seems publishers are still willing to take out their chequebooks if an exceptional novel comes along. And this one is a shining example.
Dublin author Kathleen MacMahon's debut novel, This is How it Ends, caused a sensation when it was sold at last year's London Book Fair for a phenomenal €684,000, as part of a two-book deal.
The RTÉ journalist and mother of two was represented by agent Marianne Gunne O'Connor, who also has Cecelia Ahern on her books.
Now that we have the book, it's easy to see why This is How it Ends generated such feverish excitement among publishers and fetched such a handsome sum.
A transatlantic love story beginning at the start of the current recession, it is truly a story for our time. The book is set in 2008 in Sandymount, Dublin, smack bang in the middle of the global economy imploding and the historic election of Barack Obama as the first black president of the United States of America.
Bruno is a 50-year-old American who has just lost his job with Lehman Brothers and comes to Ireland to trace his family tree.
In the course of his research, he meets his cousin, 38-year-old Addie -- lonely, reserved and sad.
An out-of-work architect, she is looking after her elderly father, Hugh, a medical consultant who is temporarily invalided and who is being sued for malpractice and bullying. He has his own reasons for avoiding Bruno's probing questions about his lineage.
As Bruno tries to learn more about Addie's family, the pair fall in love in a very easy and natural way.
Each of them has lived through all sorts of experiences and losses. At 50, he has been through his share of failed relationships and watched his mother die. Addie is reeling from the loss of a baby and had to deal with her own mother's death when she was just a child.
Both have experienced unemployment -- although of the kind that allows you to continue living in your home or to take a trip abroad to explore your family tree, as opposed to the type that sends you down to your local dole office.
Still, they are both entirely believable sums of their experiences -- cautious, deflated and all the more desperate for a chance at happiness when it finally comes along.
In a way, this is all very ordinary, but that's what helps to make this an extraordinary book. It's quite clearly commercial fiction but drawn from a subtle and muted palette of blues and greys and dazzling silvers, as opposed to the usual gaudy magentas and violets. MacMahon writes with the moderating influence of acknowledging life as a cruel mistress.
There are many serious issues woven throughout the story -- ageing, death, motherhood, or lack thereof.
There's humour here as well -- despite the pensive tone -- in Addie's companion, the little dog Lola; in her sister Della and husband Simon and their children; in Addie's dislike of some of Bruno's very American ways.
There is a twist to the story, but to say more would be unfair as it creeps up on you and is so polar to the kind of ending we have come to expect that it is quite devastating. A love story reflecting our troubled times.
I was left surprisingly bereft by the end of the novel. MacMahon proves her writing skills in emotionally powerful scenes and certainly lives up to her own literary pedigree -- her grandmother was the short-story writer and novelist Mary Lavin and her aunt was the late Caroline Walsh, former literary editor of the Irish Times.
It is fitting that the sea and the sky play such a beautiful role in this novel, from Addie's morning swims to a rare appearance of the Northern Lights, as there is a constant undertow to this book, a tidal ebb following each swell, and that balance makes this novel all the more moving, and unusual in its refusal to follow well-worn paths of happy-ever-after.
MacMahon writes movingly about the balm of hope and the redemption of love, about the very real pain of loss and the restorative power of family and, not half as oddly as it might sound, the power and insight of Bruce Springsteen.
Due to the extraordinary amount of money involved in the sale of her book, MacMahon will doubtless be under the critical microscope for her debut novel.
But This is How it Ends stands up admirably to scrutiny and signals the belated arrival of a new Irish commercial writer with an extraordinary gift and a voice that is entirely her own.