Deirdre Madden on space and time
Deirdre Madden’s new novel is about a slippery subject. But it’s far from being weird, obscure or overly philosophical
Clear and vivid prose: Deirdre Madden. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
Time, St Augustine remarked in his Confessions, is something we all understand – until we’re asked to explain it. The saint would likely be amused by the efforts of contemporary theoretical physicists, who regularly tie themselves into knots trying to sort out our relationship to the phenomenon known as four-dimensional space-time.
The complexity of temporal perception has also been a fruitful theme for poets. It is woven into the fabric of TS Eliot’s series of meditations on mortality, Four Quartets. And the new novel by the Antrim-born writer Deirdre Madden takes its title, Time Present and Time Past, from the first poem of Eliot’s quartet, Burnt Norton.
Time, perhaps, to start worrying that this is going to be a weird, obscure or overly philosophical book? On the contrary. Madden’s eighth novel slips by faster than two sunny weeks by the sea.
“It’s a very simple book,” she says. “It’s a family story set in contemporary Dublin. But there are these other ideas which are shot through it, so I hope that anybody who wants to take it a bit deeper will notice that.”
What made her decide to approach this slipperiest of subjects through the medium of fiction? “I got into it in the first instance by looking at photographs,” she says. “I’ve always liked old black-and-white photographs, and I came across some very early colour photographs and was really amazed by them. By how clear and vivid they were.”
Clear and vivid is also a perfect summation of Madden’s prose style. Her writing is unshowy, even understated – which may be one reason why she doesn’t get as much attention as she deserves. Nevertheless her most recent book, Molly Fox’s Birthday, which follows a day in the life of a successful actor through the eyes of one of her friends, was shortlisted for the 2009 Orange Prize.
One By One in the Darkness, a study of three sisters in the North just before the IRA ceasefire, was also an Orange finalist.
Time Present and Time Past focuses on a Dublin family just before the bank guarantee. The Buckleys are a resolutely ordinary middle-class family – and also, more startlingly perhaps, a resolutely happy one. There are no late-night drunken street fights. There’s no shouting or roaring. “I hope people will enjoy reading about a happy family, because there are so few books about it,” Madden says, tongue placed firmly in cheek. “It isn’t a very dramatic book. But they have their complications. Families can be hard, but family is also a good thing. I wanted to look at that idea as well. But also how the family dynamic changes. Different currents within it. The tensions, attractions, repulsions.”