Tuesday 20 March 2018

Review: Long Time, No See by Dermot Healy

Faber and Faber, €14.99, Paperback

Back in the 1980s when Dermot Healy was editing the Cavan-based magazine The Drumlin, he took to recording the stories of people he met out on the roads. He wrote everything down in longhand, making them say things again so he didn't miss anything.

"I wanted to leave in all the inconsequential material that normally gets left out," he told me. "There are voices out there articulating a world."

His long-awaited fourth novel Long Time, No See draws us into a world of such voices, a world in which the rhythm of everyday speech is a wondrous sounding board for the inner and outer reality of the characters. Allow it to become part of your life. Read it, hear it, breathe it and you will be rewarded.

Long time, No See is rooted in the physical reality of the small coastal town of Ballintra in Donegal, on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, where Healy observes in dispassionate detail the no-nonsense way the characters get on with their everyday lives.

He gets as much tension out of building a dry-stone wall, cleaning a chimney or clipping a donkey's hoofs as another writer might from a car chase or rape. Fleeting allusions to possible suicide, adultery and murder remain no more than that. Yet although nothing dramatic seems to happen, other than the puzzling appearance of a bullet-hole in a window, and there is little or no plot in any conventional literary terms, a sense of family and community -- and the passing of time -- is palpable.

The protagonist at the centre of the narrative, which is structured in short titled chapters, is a teenager who has just left school called Phillip -- but known to everyone as Mister Psyche ("someone called him that and it stuck") -- who spends much of his time caring for two old men living alone nearby, his uncle (or maybe grandda) Joejoe and a long-time crony The Blackbird, who keeps to himself but always smells of perfume. They're like a couple of Kilkenny cats whose enmity with age has become a form of friendship.

There is a girl called Anna for whom Psyche has feelings, but they never get beyond chatting for fear of things "going dark". She jokes that he's Doras (door) and she's Fuinneog (window), meaning the door is shut and the window is open. With luck, they could become a couple.

His da drives a JCB and his mother is a nurse on call at the local hospital. The neighbours, who turn up at parties and wakes, include a judge, the priest, Miss Jilly from the Big House, Stefan, a Polish mechanic who works at Mick Doyle's garage, some hippies from Castleknock, and Latvian immigrants who fish off the rocks.

Then there's Mr and Mrs Brady, forgiving parents of his friend Mickey, who died in a car crash, and The General, who may or may not be holding a grudge. And out of these and other seemingly ordinary lives, Healy weaves a richly compelling comic-sad tapestry of love and the death in which, like the pauses in a Pinter play, truth lurks in what's left unsaid, catching us off-guard.

These are not people who talk about their feelings or their pain, but they are there for each other when it matters. The setting is Ireland today, a Ballintra of The X Factor, McDonald's and Sky TV, where "we sold the sea to the EU" and people queue at a pass machine "like a line of communicants", but an Ireland in which the spirit of kinship still somehow prevails, with an unsentimental compassion and good humour that gives hope.

An epic rites-of-passage novel of little events, Long Time, No See rings true in the lyrical beauty of its ordinariness. You put it down after 510 pages feeling that it all happened to you.

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