‘Mia Gallagher stands alone in the scope of her patient ambition’
While complex and suggestive, Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland has an old-fashioned page-turning momentum which draws the reader on
Mia Gallagher has left us with a fearless and defiant book. Generous, reckless, revealing and baffling, you come away from it with renewed faith in what the novel can achieve. Photograph: Sean Molloy
Among the current generation of Irish fiction writers Mia Gallagher stands alone in the scope of her patient ambition. Every 10 years or so she arrives out of the distance, her silver hair streaming in the wind, bearing a novel so closely considered but so large that it draws its own gravitational field, weather systems and dialects with it, a thing of dangerous turbulence. The impression is of a long and difficult conjuration.
Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland opens with a bomb going off at a London Underground station. At that moment four narrative arcs are loosed into the world. Georgia Madden, a freelance film editor, begins recording a video letter to her estranged father; a voiceover brings us through a Museum of Curiosities where we are encouraged to browse through its collection of maps and mementos from Bohemia, the “lost homeland” of the title: a documentary maker records the testimony of Anna Bauer, a refugee from that same disappeared land. And in the fourth section – the book’s patient, truthful heart – we get a portrait of the Maddens, a middle-class family in 1970s Dublin.
The Maddens should be a happy family; they have professions – medic and engineer – and they dote on their only child Georgie. But at the very moment when they should be easing into their happiness their family begins to shear apart under the stresses of illness, marital suspicion and class tensions. This is a finely drawn section, rueful in its telling, and the picture of David, the father, whose work and career are stymied by both environmental and office politics, is a particularly fine study in male frustrations, anxieties and embarrassments. And all the time, the young Georgie, ill at ease in herself and the world around her, registering but unsure of the tensions within and without her.
Gallagher has left us with a fearless and defiant book. Generous, reckless, revealing and baffling, you come away from it with renewed faith in what the novel can achieve. You lay it down and think to yourself that if you could put one recent Irish novel into the hands of young writers with ambitions for the form this would be the one
It is a complex novel, a construct of great architectural ambition, which honours the reader by courting no favours or concessions. It begs large questions and conundrums – nothing less than time and history/herstory is being grappled with here. The four narratives, each in their separate idiom, weave and dance across each other. Different scales, temporal and spatial, are brought into alignment. From close peering at the finer details of maps and documents to wide panning shots over the broad swathes of European history, Gallagher lays it all before the reader with assurance. Indeed, this deft handling of Bohemia’s swaying history is a bravura aspect of the novel which is unique in recent Irish fiction – real and cod scholarship brings us on a lightning tour of the region’s centuries-long miseries. In this respect, the characters of the refugee Anna Bauer and Lotte hinge all four narratives together and the reader is invited to make connections across historical time and that other time in which stories run parallel and simultaneous.
But we shouldn’t be daunted. While complex and suggestive, the book has an old-fashioned page-turning momentum which draws the reader on. Gallagher lays down teasers which hook the reader’s inquisitiveness and which are slowly revealed with the turning of the pages – what happened to Lotte’s brother? What became of Georgia’s father? What gift did he send which so upsets her? Gallagher lays down her cards slowly and she needs every page to bring the whole project into proper alignment.
The novel’s narrative interweave holds out the promise of arriving at a moment of convergence in which all will be revealed and made clear, that moment of all-things-coming-together when the reader is invited to stand back and admire the craft and the patience of the writer who obviously saw all this coming a long time ago. But Gallagher works her structure to a less artificial conclusion. Novels might play out to such tidy ends but history – global or personal – seldom does. In the end the book rises like a terraced ziggurat from which the reader gazes out on the separate scales of its vision – the life of a family, the life of an individual, the life of a whole European region. These lives cross and intersect, they double and recur, but they do not solve.
Gallagher has left us with a fearless and defiant book. Generous, reckless, revealing and baffling, you come away from it with renewed faith in what the novel can achieve. You lay it down and think to yourself that if you could put one recent Irish novel into the hands of young writers with ambitions for the form this would be the one.
“Here,” you’d say, “this is what’s possible, these high peaks, these distant horizons. Go forth and experiment.”
Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland is published by New Island. Mike McCormack’s latest work is Solar Bones (Tramp Press), Irish Book of the Year 2016 and winner of the Goldsmiths Prize