An age-old struggle
FICTION: ANNE FOGARTYreviews SolaceBy Belinda McKeon Picador, 341pp. £12.99
DEEPLY TROUBLED relationships between fathers and sons are a mainstay of Irish narratives. They form an imaginative core in numerous signal texts, including Christy Mahon’s murderous assault on his father in JM Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World, Stephen Dedalus’s determined evasion of his real father, Simon, and tentative dalliance with a substitute one, Leopold Bloom, in James Joyce’s Ulysses, and young Mahoney’s anguished struggle against his abusive father in John McGahern’s The Dark.
In her compelling debut novel, Solace, Belinda McKeon succeeds in subtly reconfiguring and updating the archetypal story of a son’s quarrel with his father. In her hands, it becomes a profound and exacting conjuration with the pyscho-social shifts taking place in contemporary Ireland. This time-honoured plot as re-envisioned by McKeon allows us to see things anew and to track the divisive effects of the boom years and its disastrous aftermath of economic collapse on the bonds between generations.
Solace concentrates on Mark Casey’s estranged and emotionally charged relationship with his father, Tom, who runs a small farm in Dorvaragh, Co Longford. Mark is a doctoral student at Trinity College whose dissertation on Maria Edgeworth has stalled. At the beginning of the novel he is torn between rival demands: the need to deliver a chapter of his thesis on time in order to secure his scholarship funding and an equally urgent imperative to return home to help with the annual hay-making.
The routine requests that he assist with the burdens of running the family farm are never delivered directly by his taciturn and non-communicative father. Instead, they are mediated on the phone by his mother, the father’s needling silences and unvoiced expectations thus adding to the tenseness of their already prickly exchanges. Indeed, the unspoken is indicated to be a determining and deeply consequential aspect of all forms of human interconnection in this novel. It defines not just traditional family relations but modern modes of love and friendship as well.
Mark has seemingly failed his father by refusing to take on the doomed enterprise of running a small-holding. He has compounded this betrayal by falling for a young woman, Joanne Lynch, whom he meets on a drug-addled night out in Dublin and who, it transpires, is the daughter of a corrupt local solicitor. The latter had sold off a farm for profit which Tom Casey had been hoping to inherit from a local man who had assumed the role of adoptive father for him.
Lines of succession and family birthright prove equally problematic for the female figures in the novel. Joanne Lynch has entered the legal profession but broken off links with her father due to his political machinations and crooked behaviour. The first court case in which she is involved as a solicitor-in-training, however, reveals to her the difficulty of maintaining probity. Even as an apprentice, she gets drawn willy-nilly into a web of deceit.
Solacetracks the sharp divides between two radically different Irish social realities: an ageing and conservative rural community in Co Longford with its gossip-driven and pointedly secular modes of surveillance and control acts as a counterfoil to the urban milieu of the young adults in the novel who are at ease with the hedonism, laxity, sexual promiscuity and tolerant diversity of contemporary Dublin. While the fact that a son may be gay is still the source of malicious speculation and troubled rumination in the local pub frequented by Mark’s father, same-sex partnerships are unexceptional in the tangled and varied friendships which Mark and Joanne sustain.
However, the impetus of this novel is not simply to chart social change or intergenerational conflict. It is no accident that Maria Edgeworth – a novelist of manners who also engaged with Enlightenment views of freedom, rationality and selfhood – provides one of the key fields of reference in Solace. Likewise, debates about consciousness and interpersonal attention in contemporary phenomenology that are mentioned in fleeting encounters with Clive Robinson, one of Joanna’s former lecturers, denote another submerged but salient vein of interests. Joanna’s sudden and unplanned pregnancy and a subsequent family tragedy are pivotal events in the plot that alter the bond between Mark and his father. McKeon delicately outlines the philosophical repercussions of these discordant changes in her characters’ worlds.
Her protagonist, in the manner of many Irish novelistic heroes, may appear merely to be acted upon by events. But his growth in apprehension and discernment is crucial. By the end of the novel, he has arrived at a fundamental understanding of his father although his interactions with him remain off-hand and guarded. Moreover, in the manner of John McGahern, whose interest in the elemental rhythms of daily life McKeon mirrors, release – the solace of the title – is to be found not in large-scale gestures but in the diurnal patterns of commonplace existence.
The poetic sinuousness of McKeon’s style deftly insinuates the reader into the emotional worlds of her characters which are outlined with unflinching clarity and a winning compassion. Solace, in sum, is an assured and poised debut, at once a moving and gracefully etched story of human loss and interconnection set in contemporary Ireland and a deeply affecting meditation on being in the world.
Belinda McKeon reads at the Kilkenny Arts Festival on Tuesday, August 9th, with Kevin Barry and Paul Murray. See kilkennyarts.ie
Anne Fogarty is Professor of James Joyce Studies at University College Dublin