A novel just like life


WHEN Mary McGarry Morris's last novel, A Dangerous Woman, was turned into a film, so many of her strengths as a novelist were lost in the translation. Her sure grasp of character, a complete mastery of tone and nuance, the startling rendering of the knotty intricacies of small lives all these came adrift in the vast and inexact sprawl of film vernacular.

This time it is the author herself who has opted for the larger fictional canvas with this doorstop of a book 700 odd pages is quite a challenge even for the most devoted reader. (Apart from anything, it is damn hard to lug a book this size around with you, and reading it in bed without the services of a crane is well nigh impossible.)

McGarry Morris is a vastly under rated American writer working in the broad genre of, if not dirty realism, then distinctly grim realism. Her previous novels, vanished and A Dangerous Woman despite the latter being taken up by Hollywood have appeared largely unheralded on this side of the world. Which is a great pity since they are both intricate masterpieces imbued with a painful and gothic intensity worthy of Flannery O'Connor.

Her move from these tight trim novels to an epic saga is quite a gamble, and one has to commend her lofty ambition in attempting something this long and unfashionable. But again, something has been lost in the translation.

Put simply, Songs in Ordinary Time is a panoramic portrait of a small town in Vermont in the early Sixties, centring on one family, that of the embattled Marie Fermoyle, deserted wife and impoverished mother of three.

Enter Omar Duvall, a smalltime con man and trickster, who attaches himself to the intensely lonely Marie and worms his way into the reluctant affections of her three children.

Built around this central tableau is an intricate cross section of the town's political and social life, from the trash man to the judge, the police chief to the priest's housekeeper. The trouble is that McGarry Morris has created such compelling central characters in Marie, her hopeless alcoholic husband, Sam, and the daringly deceitful Omar, that the reader feels cheated when the focus shifts away from them.

The constant interruptions to their narrative as McGarry Morris takes us on a detour of the town starts to irritate precisely because she has reeled us in so seductively into their lives.

We want to know when Marie will finally conquer her wilful self deception and see Omar for what he is, and just when we have finally given up on Omar as an out and out blackguard he does something small and tender and confuses us again, so that we join with Marie in wanting to believe that he is good at heart.

The power of this strong woman's yearning for the tiniest shred of love runs through this novel like a delicate motif and is mirrored in all of her children.

And nowhere is McGarry Morris better than with the character of Sam, the self aggrandising alcoholic who is soft and weak and pitiful, a man who knows only "wet love".

"All his life trying to make people laugh. Couldn't stand sadness, even hated daylight because of the way it magnified sadness. Water splashing in the bathroom, bacon frying. The brilliant glare of noon, the harshness, the boredom. The dinner hour building, the holocaust of their scorn, their disappointment. Pass the butter, please. Eyes on the plate. The tension weakening him. And when he could not make them laugh or love him, settling for pity.

Nobody in this novel has a mere walk on part. McGarry Morris takes as much care drawing pen pictures of Marie's socially mobile neighbours, or Omar's Bible selling sidekicks, as she does with the Fermoyles.

But the very scope of this ambitious novel dilutes the effect, and McGarry Morris's delicate and evocative rendering of character so much her strength weakens the narrative drive.

This is a novel that would not only bear two to three readings but needs them. So many fine moments get overlooked on first sight and there are too many characters clamouring for attention. Which I suppose is just like life. A book just like life? No mean accolade for any author.