Revealing the person at the heart of tragedy
Northern Irish writer Dave Duggan's second novel explores the devastating impact of bereavement and a mother's attempt to find a way through it
‘LOSS TASTES like burnt toast. Black and crunchy, teeth-grating and grim, loss is life overdone. You can scrape it with a knife, your plans for a new life, your commitment to making a future for yourself and, though you will manage to scrape off the outer flakes of the burnt bread of life, you will never totally remove the sordid taste of it. Loss is an indigestible burnt offering.”
Toast might be an unfussy analogy for bereavement, but in the hands of Northern Irish writer Dave Duggan, the words have a devastating effect. They are spoken by Donna Bradley, the 30-something protagonist of Duggan’s second novel, A Sudden Sun.
She lives an unremarkable life in contemporary Derry, but Duggan gives her a hugely authentic female voice.
“I have five sisters (the book is dedicated to them), and a strong mother, so there is a strong female influence in my own biography. As a writer, the mechanisms and devices that I like to bring to bear are imagination and empathy, so I saw this an opportunity to write a woman’s voice. I tried to use that to create a meaningful character. Fundamentally it’s a story, a lived story of Donna Bradley, but while she’s fictional, I hope she has a possibility of resonance with readers.”
Donna’s impact on the reader is predicated hugely on her situation. In the opening pages, she tells us about a tragic loss that she and her husband have suffered.
Their unborn child, a girl, will not live to be born and Donna has to give birth to a stillborn child. Her difficult labour “was to push her to the grave, not to the cot,” and the book is infused with references to the child’s short existence.
The trauma of a life that ended before it began has an added poignancy because the things that become a comfort in grief – photographs, remembered conversations, achievements – are not there.
We discuss the timing of the book, given the recent news focus on the cases of four women who had to travel outside of Ireland for terminations after being told their babies would not live.
Duggan admits he feels a huge empathy but that the book was not in anyway influenced by specific stories.
“On one level, I’m always furiously engaged – in a very focused way – with what I’m writing, but I always have my antennae tuned into things going on in the wider world. I think the word ‘zeitgeist’ has been beaten to death, but we all pick up things we’re not even aware of.”
The book also tackles infant organ retention, but the focus is on the character’s reaction to it, not the machinations of the issue itself. “I’m interested in the big sweep of matters that are going on around us,” says Duggan, “and finding out where the human, the individual sits in all of that. One of the chapters in the book is called ‘The Human Factor’ and I’m hugely motivated by that idea. Every time I watch the news or read a newspaper, I try to find where the individual is in relation to that story.”
A further topical concern in these pages is the environment. Rather than becoming a polemical bugbear, it represents an opportunity for Donna to find a way out of her grief. Plans for an incinerator in her area incense the local community, but it becomes an act of engagement for Donna, and something that recalibrates her motivation. Conversely, the death of her child has a catastrophic effect on Donna and her husband. Their relationship becomes burdened by their collective loss and their marriage fails. Rather than be overwhelmed by this, Donna finds inner resolve and it ultimately saves her.
“Donna internalises a big story in her city into a very personal moment – the death of her child. It contributes to her loss, but it galvanises her. There’s a moment at a public meeting about the incinerator, where in response, she makes a banner. She doesn’t march, or form a committee – the banner is a creative act and, for me, that’s her reaching for order, for beauty, for something imagined.”
A Sudden Sun is Duggan’s second novel, but he has written for stage and screen. How the Blackbird Sings (his critically acclaimed play about war poet Francis Ledwidge) was staged at Dublin’s Project Theatre in 2010. His 1996 short film, Dance Lexie Dance was nominated for an Oscar.
It tangentially touched on religion in Northern Ireland, and I ask Duggan if Northern Irish writers who engaged with The Troubles have shifted their perspective.
“Everything I do is now. Even my play about Francis Ledwidge in 1916 is now. When I write about him, he’s here now, he’s not dead. The past continues and never goes away . . . time is a continuous present. I think of myself as an Irish writer, but I don’t look out for that. I write here and now. That’s what I do.”
A Sudden Sun by Dave Duggan is published by Guildhall Press