Loss in a cold climate

The Truth About Love By Josephine Hart Virago, 248pp. £12.99

The Truth About LoveBy Josephine Hart Virago, 248pp. £12.99

A BOY falls to the ground.There are panicked voices around him, calling for a blanket, a doctor, an ambulance. Then the priest appears, shaking his head.

So begins this sixth novel from Irish novelist Josephine Hart. Its urgent first chapter is followed by the shifting perspectives of loved ones struggling to come to terms with the past. We see Ireland through the eyes of the German outsider, Mr Middlehof, who borrows a missal from his housekeeper for his “first Irish funeral”. We are led inside the tortured mind of Sissy O’Hara, the mother, as her grief renders her mute. The Truth About Love, set in rural Ireland a few decades ago, entwines family histories with broader, more political ones. By examining the mourning Irish family alongside that of a lonely German man, Hart thoughtfully probes some timely questions about love, homeland and the role of memory.

After the accident the O’Haras consider moving away from their home where everything is a reminder of their son’s absence. They travel around the country looking for a new house, but soon understand the need to stay close to what they have lost. By contrast, Mr Middlehof, a “member of a cursed tribe”, has removed himself from the German landscape, which reminds him of his own personal grief and, perhaps, that of his country.


In a casual exchange between the two men, soon after the funeral, the conversation quickly takes on a political edge: “You’re Irish, Mr O’Hara, forgetfulness is not possible,” Mr Middlehof says. “And you’re German, Mr Middlehof. No doubt memory is a burden.”

A large, bronze “warrior’s gate” with a helmet at the top grows symbolic. Shipped over from Germany and located on Mr Middelhof’s land, it was admired by the O’Hara boy. After his death, it’s given to the O’Hara family, who place it at the entrance to the garden where the accident took place. Later, Mr Middlehof wonders about the tragedies this gate may have witnessed: “Must every German gate have opened on to a horror?

At times, Ireland is a grey place where the “only colour is in the words and the language of the people”. The narrative makes for tough reading at times, particularly during the mother’s stay inside a psychiatric ward. The novel is a strong exploration of mourning and memory, brimming with provocative, if weighty, references – everyone from Günter Grass to Gerry Adams is mentioned – as Hart sets the narrative against the backdrop of Irish political developments through the decades and debates about German victimhood and guilt.

But perhaps most memorable are the subtle descriptions of grief, as when, for example, the daughter nervously watches her mother Mrs O’Hara looking out at the back garden, and wonders if the painful memory evoked by this scene of tragedy might somehow be softened by the falling flakes of snow.

  • Sorcha Hamilton is an Irish Times journalist
Sorcha Hamilton

Sorcha Hamilton

Sorcha Hamilton is an Irish Times journalist