Elizabeth Keane, who occupies centre stage in Graham Norton's new novel, is "a lecturer in Romantic poetry living in a tiny rented apartment" in New York. We know this because Elizabeth thinks it to herself, in an opening chapter consisting almost entirely of similar ruminations. Exposition of this kind is one of the chores that the novelist must get on with, and if it is done discreetly the reader hardly notices. Norton dispenses with these niceties, issuing us instead with a sizeable information pack. We learn, for instance, that Elizabeth is recently divorced, that her mother's death has occasioned her return to Ireland and that she dislikes Christmas.
And there is more to come. When Elizabeth admits herself to the now-deserted family home, she has hardly climbed the stairs before the revelations begin tumbling out. Encountering a mirror, she takes stock of her facial features as if encountering them for the first time, a practice popular among male writers if not among actual women. But it is when Elizabeth discovers a cache of her mother’s correspondence that the fruit machine starts to pay out in earnest.
At this point, a parallel narrative is introduced, one whose elements are in some ways familiar. Forty years in the past, we encounter Elizabeth’s mother, Patricia, whose own mother has died following a long illness. Released after years of dutiful servitude, Patricia resolves to seek out the romantic fulfilment she has denied herself for so long. Again, a great many particulars are supplied early on, and although there is plenty to pick over in this trove of family history, it is not at all clear what we ought to make of it.
Much of the difficulty is due to this novel’s tone, which from the outset veers between melodrama (as when Elizabeth consigns her mother’s letters to “the dusty oblivion of the box”) and fizzy bonhomie (“‘Kilkenny!’ she cried as if it was Gaelic for Eureka”). A Keeper, according to its cover blurb, is “a twisted tale of secrets and ill-fated loves”, and while unpleasant surprises are indeed in store (we will return to those shortly), we are never quite sure whether to laugh or cry.
This is especially true of the chapters set in the present. Elizabeth, we are given to understand, finds her hometown oppressive and her extended family unendurable, yet when she visits an aunt to investigate the mysteries of the past, her excitability begins to seem almost pathological. She is, we are told, “a pinball machine of emotion”, and perhaps this explains why she keeps giving “wry” or “silly” grins, even as she receives worrying news from home (her 17-year-old son has gone missing) and uncovers ever murkier episodes from her family’s past.
The problem, though, is not just that these outbursts are jarring; it’s that they are entirely disconnected, both from each other and from the events unfolding around her. There is no need for a character’s behaviour to be relatable, but it must at the very least be comprehensible.
Back in the past, meanwhile, there are more pressing concerns. Resorting to a lonely hearts ad, Patricia has attracted a suitor and finds herself stirred by the fulsome tenderness of his correspondence. In person, however, Edward Foley turns out to be a near-wordless bachelor farmer who wanders off during moments of intimacy to see about the milking. (On one such occasion, Patricia wonders if "it had been her modest bosom that prompted him to seek out the heaving udders in the milking parlour", an aside of such hallucinatory crassness that it seems almost to shimmer on the page.)
Edward's mother, meanwhile, is forever boiling hams or throttling chickens while in mid-conversation, and it comes as no surprise when Patricia returns home in disillusionment, having concluded that Edward is "not the man for her". Her resolve, however, is short-lived. Indeed, this is to be our last fleeting glimpse of any recognisable human instinct. Patricia takes delivery of a giant bouquet from Interflora, and is immediately persuaded to reconsider. With renewed anticipation, she sets out once more for Castle House, the remote marshland fastness near Bantry where the Foleys have their home.
Before turning to what comes next, a brief note on spoilers may be in order. Norton’s many fans will doubtless want to make up their own minds about this book, and they may rest assured that most of its secrets have been kept. However, it is impossible to give a fair account of these proceedings without discussing one central development in particular, so those who prefer to save themselves are advised to look away now.
To no one’s surprise but Patricia’s, events at Castle House take a dark turn. When a deception is discovered, she announces her intention to return home, but Mrs Foley has other ideas. Determined to establish her son in matrimonial bliss, she has conceived of a plan, one that takes no particular account of the compliance of the bride-to-be. Patricia is briskly drugged and imprisoned in a flouncy guest room, leaving these confines only to use the toilet or undertake forced domestic labour. Though she occasionally seems put out by these arrangements, she reflects – when called upon to dust her captor’s figurines – that they give her “a strange sense of satisfaction”.
This is, to put it simply, bananas. So is Patricia's insistence that Edward is "not a bad man", even if he does tear up a bit when directed to restrain her. The ghoulishness of the scenario is not in itself the problem. We might have believed that Patricia had succumbed to some form of Stockholm syndrome if we had witnessed the development of that distorted intimacy. But Edward rarely tears himself away from his udders and Mrs Foley is not so much a character as a Hitchcockian neurosis in a cardigan. What plays out instead is a rickety fiasco peopled by gormless stick figures that would be disturbing if it were remotely convincing.
There are traces here of the book this might have been. Norton has a keen eye for the quirks and textures of small Irish towns, and might have made a go of the dark and ribald comedy that seems at times to be straining to get out. But as A Keeper lurches to its sombre and oddly stagy finale, we are preoccupied not with what might have been but with what he could possibly have been thinking.
Paraic O'Donnell is a novelist and critic. His most recent novel, The House on Vesper Sands, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.