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.”