Sinéad takes romance from Ireland to Africa
Fiction: The Way We Were, Sinéad Moriarty, Penguin Ireland, pbk, 448 pages, €17.99
Maggie armstrong reviews the winner of the Irish Independent Popular Fiction Book of the Year award.
Romance, like a beautiful face, needs a flaw to make us interested: a storm brewing over the fairytale kingdom, a sprouting blemish on a perfect complexion. The cracks let us into the story and once trapped, we'll believe anything we're told.
Sinéad Moriarty builds her 11th novel on a domestic fantasy that is so close to perfect, we want her to destroy it. For this one - oddly named after a Barbara Streisand film - she takes us out of boring old Ireland into London, where gorgeously wealthy husband and wife Ben, a surgeon, and Alice, a GP, live in South Kensington with their two daughters, Jools and Holly.
Alice is Irish but her London is an emigrant's paradise - an Irish nanny, Nora, hums ditties and prepares stew; an adoring gay brother, Kevin, drops by every evening and regales the family with stage camp good humour, then doubles up as his sister's medical secretary and best friend. Sometimes it is as if London were a ceili hall of warm hearts and rosy cheeks, not a cold, hard capital of eight million people.
But, indeed, the cracks start to show: the marriage is jaded and Ben wants more stimulation at work, so he decides to travel to war-riven Eritrea to perform colon surgery on a government minister.
Without spoiling everything, let's just say the pretty picture spirals into a tale of risk and misadventure involving some gruesome surgical procedures, an empty coffin, a Prince Charming with a £600m property portfolio, and a love triangle.
At moments, Moriarty convinces us thoroughly that this is all happening - note, this comes from a reader who by-and-large loathes, yet is fascinated by, the very concept of popular fiction, of writing to make money, of reading to get to the end.
Such is the popular writer's skill in crafting real people out of meaty dialogue, and plots made of problems and desires that we recognise and that aren't cookie-cut from an industrial dough of chick-lit themes, we actually care about the growth of these characters.
We don't fall for everything: when Alice and Ben are no more, Alice falls for a stock rich dreamboat, and there is an unreasonable rush to a happy ending. Blandness prevails over whole chapters. Sample blandness: "Alice studied him. He was very attractive in a rugged, sexy kind of way. Very different from Dan's tall, handsome good looks."
But the author has fashioned a story with such knife-edge peril and heroism that you cannot escape these pages until goodness and true love win out.
Most gratifyingly, Moriarty can make us laugh, whether it's gallows humour in Eritrea, or virtuoso teenage banter.
Daughter Jools was my favourite, an irreverent 15-year-old mini Kardashian who hates school and energetically belittles her parents. I hope we encounter Jools again, and that her personality won't be flattened under the pressures of a nice happy ending and a return to fantasyland.