Saturday 25 January 2020

Fly-fishing in the face of a dark and hidden secret

Fiction: The Trout, Peter Cunningham, Sandstone Press, €11.99

Author and journalist Peter Cunningham at his home in Donadea, Co. Kildare. Photo: Tony Gavin
Author and journalist Peter Cunningham at his home in Donadea, Co. Kildare. Photo: Tony Gavin
Deirdre Conroy

Deirdre Conroy

The novel's title subverts the exceptional structure in the architecture of this mystery tale. Curious details about the biology and physiology of the fish are delivered at the commencement of chapters, marking a reflection on a human trait or, indeed, inhuman trait, as the reader will discover.

"Fly-fishing allows a man to revert to his state of being a natural hunter and to stalk his quarry as he has done since memory began… it allows man to act out an elemental part of the forest glade that lies within us all." For at least one man in the novel, it allowed evil to hide in plain sight.

The art of fly-fishing and the covert act of night fishing form the backdrop to the story of Alex Smyth.

We meet Alex, a retired teacher, about to publish his second novel. A dark secret from his childhood is laid at his feet when his publisher forwards to him a package containing a 'coachman', a particular fly for night fishing.

This chilling reminder of a childhood lie, the spectre of a parish priest and the distance of 'the Doctor', propel Alex into a dark depression. His wife, Kay is a former nurse, turned psychologist. They met in the 1970s on a beach in Waterford when Alex was in a seminary. According to Alex's father, 'the doctor', medicine and the church were the only honourable professions.

His son taking to celibacy and the church greatly pleased him. But Kay changed all that. Rejected by his father and local community, the couple moved to Canada.

They have settled in Bayport on the shore of Lake Muskoka, near Toronto, a place that provides ample scope for the author's exquisite rendering of nature.

There is only one thing to do, to sort the demons gathering in his head, and Alex takes a plane to Ireland to visit his father in a nursing home and glean some clues to the dark night that plagues his soul.

The acrid encounter with his father commences a trail of investigation through the south Tipperary countryside, in search of the Flannery Farm and the parish priest at the core of the buried secret.

When Peter Cunningham describes the shimmering beauty of the trout, its expertise at survival, conserving its energy, taking advantage of vulnerable flies and nymphs at the mercy of the currents, he creates a parallel with the evidence of clerical abuse during the period.

Commingled with the poetry of the trout is the prose of memory, adding a deeper dimension to a well-crafted psychological thriller.

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