New fiction: A Shadow in the Yard by Liz McManus
A tale of two cities and two women 30 years apart
Liz McManus: the former TD has returned to writing after 18 years. Photograph: Eric Luke
A Shadow in the Yard
Let’s talk about shape. Not the kale-munching, juice-pressing, kettle-bell hell of last month but shape as it relates to fiction: the tone and texture of a novel. The plot, as all readers know, is the sequence of events in a story, but fiction is usually less concerned with what happens than how it happens.
Who caused the happenings follows next, leaving the spatial elements of where and when the events took place. This last one refers not only to the setting of the novel – era, month, time of day – but also to the structure of the book and at what stage in the narrative key events occur. Going back as far as Aristotle’s theory that “a whole is what has a beginning and middle and end”, the classical dramatic structure has five main elements: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and denouement.
The exposition introduces the characters’ background and conflict. The rising action is the bones of the story. A series of meaningful events build to a climax where, typically, the main character comes to realise something they did not know at the beginning. The falling action and denouement resolve the conflict, happily or unhappily, often with a sense of catharsis for the reader.
The problem with Liz McManus’s new novel is primarily one of shape. Well written, with interesting characters and themes, A Shadow in the Yard is divided into two parts. Part one, roughly two-thirds of the book, centres on the tale of an unhappy mother and wife in late-1960s Ireland. Unsatisfied with her dream home on Inishowen, in Co Donegal, Rosaleen McAvady is an architect, when her husband lets her, in the politically unstable, rioting city of Derry.
In part two the plot jumps forward 30 years, to 1998, the year of agreements up north. Rosaleen’s daughter Aoife is living in Dublin, the boom- time glimmer on the horizon contrasting with the shadows of the past.
This is McManus’s second novel, following her well-received debut, Acts of Subversion, in 1992. In the intervening 18 years she was a TD for Wicklow, a minister of state and, from 2002 to 2007, deputy leader of the Labour Party, which afforded her, according to an author Q&A at the back of the book, little time to write anything longer than a shopping list. An award-winning short-story writer, McManus recently received an MPhil in creative writing from Trinity College Dublin.
There are echoes of Jennifer Johnston in Rosaleen’s narrative, the northern landscape deftly portrayed, both from a political and a scenic perspective. A vivid picture is painted of Derry and its architecture, razed by the Troubles. The domestic storyline is also convincing, with Rosaleen caught between her love for her pompous husband, Kevin, and their two young children, and the feeling she is losing herself. Rosaleen’s private struggles are contrasted with the wider fight for freedom, city and wife both under siege.
But Rosaleen’s experiences build to nothing. Scenes with characters such as Manus, an old flame, or Tom Mundy, her republican neighbour, are over before they begin. A set piece with a disturbed neighbour reads like an interjection. We know what happens to Rosaleen from the beginning, but the pace of the action is off.
The key events surrounding her disappearance occur too abruptly and lack depth. Rosaleen is given no climax, which is partly down to the plot, but her sudden end is problematic for the book as a whole. Her neighbour Tom, a peripheral character despite a rushed backstory, is supposed to fill the gap, but the reader hasn’t seen the relationship between them develop, so his grand gesture seems an odd end to Rosaleen’s story.
In part two Aoife’s voice is charming and convincing, relating a loveless affair with her boss Jacob with candour and humour. At 36, she lives alone and sustains herself with good friendships that ring true on the page.
The difference between Aoife’s life and Rosaleen’s is a central theme. Unplanned pregnancies, relationships in turmoil, money issues, loneliness: storylines are pointedly repeated and work well to show how society has moved on. Aoife has the ability to choose where her mother did not.
This strengthens her view of self and mitigates her loneliness. Being lonely in a marriage without options, the author intimates, is worse than being lonely on your own.
There are issues again with the shape of Aoife’s story, however, with her realisations coming late, leaving little time for action or reflection. The catalyst for change and choices she has to make occur at the end of the book. With such a likeable voice, it is a shame that her story is cut short.
A Shadow in the Yard is, literally, a tale of two cities, of two women living 30 years apart. Their stories are used to show two very different Irelands, but both parts feel unfinished as a result. The shape of the novel has been sacrificed to show the shape of a changing nation.