Monday 19 March 2018

Her father's daughter... Cecelia Ahern

Fiction: The Marble Collector, Cecelia Ahern, Harpe rCollins, tpbk, 304 pages, €19.50

Cecelia Ahern's latest novel is a little darker than some of her earlier works.
Cecelia Ahern's latest novel is a little darker than some of her earlier works.
Rowena Walsh

Rowena Walsh

How well do we really know those closest to us? That's the question posed by Cecelia Ahern in her 12th novel, The Marble Collector, about a daughter trying to unlock the mysteries of her secretive father in a single day.

An obvious question is how much of the character of Fergus was inspired by Cecelia's own father, Bertie, one of the country's most enigmatic public figures.

None at all, according to Cecelia, who says: "I even went to my dad and said: 'I'm writing a book about marbles', expecting him to inspire me. But he played conkers."

Cecelia says that her latest book was inspired by an earlier short story called The Woman Who Lost Her Marbles, and though set in a part of Dublin associated with her father and involving a parent's relationship with his daughter, "what this character feels for her dad is pure fiction".

However, the former politician did cast a shadow over her early literary endeavours. When news broke of Cecelia's million-euro book deal, it was widely assumed in media circles that the then-Taoiseach's younger daughter was benefiting from her relationship with, in no particular order, her father, her mother, her sister, Westlife and her agent Marianne Gunn O'Connor.

Little was expected of her debut novel, PS I Love You. But the book-buying public loved it, and the story of a dying husband helping his grieving wife to learn to live without him through his love letters was transformed into a Hollywood movie starring Hilary Swank and Gerard Butler.

In the 11 years since its publication, Ahern has become one of Ireland's most successful writers, selling 24 million books in almost 50 countries as book-lovers devoured her particular brand of grown-up fairy tale. Part of her appeal is the demand that readers forget all about reality and immerse themselves in the world she has created.

With her 2012 novel, One Hundred Lives, she eschewed that characteristically whimsical approach and in The Marble Collector, she again produces a tale with a darker edge. However, she continues to focus on people who are on a journey of discovery, coping with some form of grief or loss, falling in and out of love and, thanks to a little bit of luck, finding who they really are.

And so it is in her new novel. Sabrina Boggs never knew that her father, Fergus, was obsessed with marbles. He is suffering the after-effects of a stroke, including memory loss, and one day a package of boxes arrives at the care facility where he is living.

Intrigued, Sabrina opens them to discover his collection of marbles, which has been carefully catalogued over many years, and she realises that the two most expensive ones are missing. The unhappy mother-of-three becomes determined to find out what happened to them and, in doing so, she realises that her father is a man she doesn't know, and that in many ways she is truly her father's daughter.

The Marble Collector is told from two perspectives, that of 30-something Sabrina, who has a single child-free day to carry out her quest, and Fergus, whose life slowly unfolds from his childhood in 1950s Dublin. The chapters focusing on Fergus become increasingly compelling as the author reveals the ultimately damaging bond between him and his older brother, how his obsession has dominated his life, and what a high price he has paid for his secretiveness.

He is half a man, unknown and unknowable to his wife and daughter. Fergus yearns for a life with no more secrets but has he left it too late? And has Sabrina mimicked his behaviour in her own life and marriage?

Cecelia is certainly aware of the importance of the father-daughter relationship. She previously attributed her success to a passion for work, inherited from her father. But another of our former Taoiseach's characteristics plays a considerable role - his ability to connect to people.

Ahern uses this to produce a novel that is both moving and thought-provoking. Fergus is not a particularly appealing character, at least initially, and the prose can be a little clunky at times - it is abundantly clear before you reach the acknowledgements section that the author has done her research on marbles - but many readers will sympathise with poor lost Sabrina.

The world of The Marble Collector may not be immediately accessible, but persevere with it and you'll discover that the old Cecelia magic is as alluring as ever.

It would be surprising if this novel followed the same starry road as PS, I Love You, but Cecelia's many fans will be happy to lose themselves in her latest tale as the nights draw in.

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