Kathleen MacMahon on The Heart of Everything by Henrietta McKervey

McKervey’s wisdom as a storyteller prevents her from delivering salvation in over-simplified form, but she does allow her characters to gain some perspective on their lives

Kathleen MacMahon on The Heart of Everything by Henrietta McKervey: “This is Anne Tyler territory, where a novel about family becomes a crime novel, as the harm we do unto each other is revealed with forensic care”

Kathleen MacMahon on The Heart of Everything by Henrietta McKervey: “This is Anne Tyler territory, where a novel about family becomes a crime novel, as the harm we do unto each other is revealed with forensic care”

 

Henrietta McKervey knows family, and she writes about it with an insight that is fierce and unflagging. The story of the three adult Jensen children, who come together to search for their mother, is an off-road journey into the fractious relationships that the siblings share with each other, and the guilt they feel about the missing Mags.

Mags is in the early stage of dementia and has to all intents and purposes vanished, after walking out the door of the house in Dublin where she lives alone. Her eldest daughter Anita – a mother and wife who has wrapped herself up in bitterness and grief over the loss of a child – summons her brother Raymond from a life of borderline alcoholism in Cork to help look for her. The third sibling, Elin, who has been exiled to Scotland for reasons that will later be revealed, is also summoned home to confront the crisis.

McKervey effortlessly inhabits the interior landscape of her characters’ heads, where regrets and desires jostle for space with the preoccupations of everyday life – the door that needs to be oiled, the mysterious growth in the size of scones. “Haven’t scones got desperate big?” Anita remembers her mother asking, but she cannot remember her reply. Poor Anita, who goes through her mother’s recycling bin to weed out the teabags and potato peelings that shouldn’t be there, unable to convince herself that it’s not her problem. Anita feels “as though her life is lived with a piano over her head, suspended by a single thread”. To her brother Raymond, Anita is capable of drawing a line between any two things, and coming up with disaster; it doesn’t seem to matter to Raymond that there is a reason why Anita feels like this.

Raymond lives his life in a state of barely sustained denial, putting off his plans to start writing a screenplay until tomorrow – always tomorrow – while struggling to find the key to the relationship he has with his partner Jean, a relationship he cannot even attach a name to. Raymond finds kinship only in his local pub, where the barman no sooner greets him than he’s reaching for an empty pint glass. Even his mother’s disappearance becomes a focus for Raymond’s self-absorption. He remembers with guilt how he would time his calls to her for just before Coronation Street, so she wouldn’t stay on the phone.

This is Anne Tyler territory, where a novel about family becomes a crime novel, as the harm we do unto each other is revealed with forensic care. Raymond nurses the old wound of his mother’s disappointment that he did not become a doctor or a dentist. When he landed a role in a TV soap; “instead of being excited, proud, thrilled – any-bloody-thing, in fact – she was … nothing”.

But Raymond’s malaise is nothing but an irritation to his older sister, and a source of hurt to Elin, who has always craved her older brother’s attention. Elin’s forced exile at the hands of Anita has made a criminal of her, even in her own eyes, and this injustice has been allowed to persist for years, as the other members of the family inadvertently collude to avoid confrontation at all costs.

The absence of any compassion between the siblings is matched only by their self-absorption. Their tragedy is the wedge this has driven between them so that they have become less of a family and more a disparate group of individuals. Their accidental reunion brings them into a physical proximity that serves only to highlight the emotional distance between them. What is most in evidence, alongside a stew of petty irritations and resentments, is the reluctant intimacy of a shared childhood and the pull of memories that may or may not be shared. “Surely their past is lodged in a joint account?” thinks Elin. “Because if it’s not, then it’s spent for ever, slipped like water through her careless fingers.”

Only when their mother goes missing, and with her the neglected heart of the family, do the siblings become aware of the extent of this neglect. It is Elin, who – as the most junior member of the family always felt like an intern – has the courage to call out their heartlessness. “‘We’ aren’t concerned, are we?” she says, when a tweet is sent out, saying they are concerned for Mags’ welfare. “‘I don’t consider her,’ she says. ‘I don’t sit at home and wonder what she’s doing with her days….I hadn’t even noticed anything was the matter.’”

Always the most perceptive of the three siblings, Elin remembers being eight years old, “when the past, present and future weren’t the distinct entities they would become with adulthood” but when “her past existed only as yesterday’s version of the present.” The past in this novel is the only thing that holds the family together. The present is a tragedy of neglected relationships and blinkered self-absorption. But hope exists in the possibility that the disappearance of Mags will prove to be a turning point, whereby something can be salvaged from the future.

McKervey’s wisdom as a storyteller prevents her from delivering this salvation in over-simplified form, but she does allow her characters to steadily climb up out of their ground-level view to gain some measure of perspective on their lives. Her description of marriage as two side-by-side escalators in a shopping centre is as good a metaphor as I have encountered for it. The moment of emotional catharsis that Anita and her husband experience late in the novel reminds her of the broken escalators she has seen, “with the steps peeled up smooth, like a bike chain, revealing the grey, oily, cavernous space underneath”. The resolution of their difficulties is only partial, “the motor whirrs into life again,” but the escalators continue to go up and down in tandem, not as one.

Similarly, the insights that Elin and Raymond gain, as they comb the streets for Mags, are partial and perhaps even temporary; McKervey resists the temptation to parcel things up too neatly. Only at the end of the novel is anything seen from above, in a moment of clarity that occurs off the page, as McKervey allows her story to move on without her. It’s a moment of consummate grace, from this most wonderful writer.

Kathleen MacMahon is the author of This is How it Ends and The Long Hot Summer

The Heart of Everything by Henrietta McKervey is published by Hachette Books Ireland, £12.99. Hodges Figgis offers a 10 per cent discount on Irish Times Book Club titles. Throughout May, we will publish a series of articles by the author, fellow writers and readers exploring the novel, culminating in a podcast to be recorded at the Irish Writers Centre on Thursday, May 26th, at 7.30pm, and published here on May 31st.

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