An Ark of Light review: a tale of marriage, the Big House and happiness
Dermot Bolger’s empathetic novel plays out across decades and cultural contexts
Dermot Bolger: his new novel provides the most vivid of social and cultural contexts.
An Ark of Light
On a chilly morning in 1954, in her home in south Dublin, Eva Fitzgerald remembers her wedding day 28 years previously – and a vow extracted by her mother: “No matter what hand life deals you, promise me that you will strive tooth and nail for the right to be happy.”
Already, in these early pages of An Ark of Light, Dermot Bolger’s expansive and empathetic new novel, we deduce that Eva’s mother was canny, clear-sighted, and perfectly able to foretell the trajectory of her daughter’s future. The dimensions of an ill-starred coupling will soon show themselves; and Eva’s marriage, to a red-faced, whiskey-loving scion of a declining Co Mayo ascendancy family, has been as ill-starred as they come.
Now, in this house in Rathgar, we glimpse the wedding day of Eva’s daughter Hazel – and the vow is renewed. It is Eva’s credo, her everything. It is a promise to be grasped with both hands.
An Ark of Light has already offered us a portrait of that Mayo marital home. The story of the declining Big House is familiar to an Irish reader: the family home is cold and damp, weeds grow in the avenue, the surrounding lands have been sold off in a (failed, naturally) bid to keep the show on the road; and the Catholic neighbours are eager to see the back of a family that has long outlived its usefulness in the district. We are reminded too that this is a country in which divorce is unobtainable, and in which a woman requires her husband’s permission to open a bank account or hold a passport: cold but necessary notes on an all too recent past, and useful context against which to set Eva’s determination to slough off a life that supplies nothing in the happiness line. And so she must be off: “If she delayed her departure any longer she would grow too cowed to ever take flight.” Against this unprepossessingly chill, dank background, a new life began.
Guts and willpower
The house in south Dublin turns out to be a mere staging post in a life lived if not always happily, then certainly with guts and willpower. Bolger’s story spotlights colonial Kenya, where the ghastly lives of settlers, with their pet mongooses and taste for imported English marmalade, are described memorably; 1960s London and provincial England; and – in scenes reminiscent of Colm Tóibín’s The South – the high Pyrenees, with their dry winds and dust. We see too glimpses of lives never lived and destinies unfulfilled, in New Zealand and elsewhere: our futures turn endlessly on pivots, this book suggests, and Eva is more aware than most of the fact that we are tools and not makers of our own destiny.
And this in turn means she is painfully aware of the transitory nature of happiness: that is a state to be glimpsed only, maybe, and that for this reason it is all the more precious. Certainly there is little sustained happiness to be taken from her life with her daughter and son: Hazel’s own choices cast shadows over her future; and Eva’s gay son, Francis, is obliged to live as best he can on the edges of a society that will at best tolerate the intolerable.
Indeed, Bolger’s novel provides the most vivid of social and cultural contexts. The world around Eva changes and grows, as feminism achieves hard-fought victories, as colonialism gasps and retreats, as Aids runs a scythe through a generation. Ireland and Dublin morph and stretch too: some of this book’s most evocative scenes are set in 1951, as Maura Laverty bellows The Red Flag from the upstairs windows of the Gate Theatre, and Hilton Edwards and Micheál MacLiammóir parade their (in this case, perfectly acceptable) homosexuality downstairs in the lobby, where a production of Tolka Row has just finished.
This novel is a continuation of another story: The Family on Paradise Pier (2005) chronicled the earlier lives of Eva’s family; and in a postscript, Bolger details the friendship he sustained over many years with Sheila Fitzgerald, who forms the model of Eva herself. Clearly, this personal dimension is of profound importance to Bolger, and this meshing of fiction and biography adds a new and distinctive layer to what is in essence a homage to a life lived fully. An Ark of Light is an act of appropriation – of a female voice, experience, and sensibility – offered to the reader in a form that is as moving as it is distinctive and respectful.
Neil Hegarty’s new novel Distemper will be published in 2019