In the weeks leading up to her death, in 2008, Nuala O’Faolain visited Berlin in the company of her fellow writer Hugo Hamilton. She was dying of cancer, and her radio interview with Marian Finucane, eschewing all the pieties of acceptance and embracing rage instead, had become a landmark in contemporary broadcasting. This experience, coupled with their friendship, forms the basis of Hamilton’s powerful and moving ninth novel, a story that, like much of his work, examines the effect of childhood trauma on our ability to find happiness.
Every Single Minute is presented as a novel, not a memoir, so one must assume the intriguing insight into O'Faolain's last days is a blend of memory and imagination. By setting the novel in Germany, the birthplace of his mother, Hamilton enables the two writers who pass a few days in the city to examine their experiences of Ireland from a distance – an interesting counterpoint to Hamilton's last novel, Hand in the Fire , an angry and provocative work that looked at the politics of city life from the point of view of a Serbian immigrant.
But while the protagonist of that book was a good man caught up in events outside his control, Úna, the dying writer of Every Single Minute , remains firmly in charge, insisting on sightseeing and visiting the opera even when it's clear that her health is deteriorating by the day. She is testy and disorientated but fiercely alive, carrying her belongings in a see-through bag with everything she needs on display to the world. No secrets.
Contribution to culture
Úna is an indomitable character, not always likable but endlessly interesting, her happiness subject to the memories that have become the basis of her autobiographical writings. Hamilton vividly describes her public performances, when humour and upset pour out of her night after night to captivated audiences. And yet there's a selfishness to her, too, a narcissism that sometimes denies other speakers their turn. His description of what she contributed to culture makes her resonant of another great Irish female writer, Edna O'Brien – "She had come back to Ireland to say all the things that were unsaid. All the things that Irish people didn't know how to say about themselves yet, so many things that needed to be confronted out loud."
Liam, her companion, is much more mysterious. We learn nothing about his writing, nor does Úna ask him questions that allow him to inform us. She seems uninterested in his work, as if it is unworthy of her attention, but she provokes him into revealing a scar of betrayal running through his own family life. There is much in this novel about the conflicts and alliances between fathers and daughters, their duplicities and rejections, the damage that can be done and the forgiveness that is often required.
Hamilton has a wonderful gift for details that surprise and elevate the story: a description of an overcrowded pub as the people squeeze in to hear a spontaneous song; the awkwardness of reaching down to embrace a person in a wheelchair; a homeless man checking the contents of a bin at night with a small torch. Such observations are scattered like gifts through the text, and they deliver evocative moments with great subtlety.
Readers familiar with Hamilton’s past work will appreciate the importance of memory in his fiction and nonfiction.
His best-known book, The Speckled People , recounts his childhood among Irish and German parents in a household where the choice of language becomes a political argument. Memory dominates this novel, too, with Úna comparing the collection of memories in her head to a museum to which she can add new exhibits, like the narrator of Orhan Pamuk's The Museum of Innocence , although her determination to focus on the negative displays an anger not just at her past but also at her impending demise. The cloud of her cancer lingers over every conversation.
When novelists write about novelists they risk allowing their own insecurities and vulnerabilities to be on show. Hamilton avoids this by presenting Úna and Liam as indifferent to commercial or critical success. Úna simply wants her voice to be heard, a difficult thing for a female writer during the era from which she comes and still often difficult today.
A description of the contradictions in her character provides the most powerful paragraph: "She was full of anger, plenty of it . . . She could be jealous . . . afraid of others doing better, more money, more successful, women more beautiful. She was on the side of women and she was also afraid of women. She stood up for women and she was jealous of them. She would walk over any woman in the world to take a man away from a woman."
Hamilton remains one of the most unpredictable and interesting of Irish writers, and if he has not achieved quite the international recognition of some of his contemporaries it is not due to any fault in his writing.
Every Single Minute is a brave and contemplative novel that questions the role of memory, the responsibilities we owe to our siblings and offspring, and the pain associated with turning a traumatic past into art. It is also a testament to the supportive friendships that can define the Irish literary landscape. One suspects Nuala O'Faolain would be pleased to know her voice, brittle, unapologetic and passionate, endures.
John Boyne's latest novel is Stay W here You Are and T hen Leave (Doubleday)