This short and dense novel is set in 1959 rural County Wicklow in Ireland on a small farm (if it’s big enough to be called that), and follows the life of one Annie Dunne, a spinster who lives with a distant cousin out in the countryside. Annie’s life is completely overshadowed by the insecurity of her living conditions, dependent as she is on her family’s charitable impulses to provide a safe home and living for her.
Living as she is with fairly distant cousin Sarah Cullen, life has been fairly calm for some time, but when Annie’s young niece and nephew come to live with the two women one summer whilst their parents relocate to London, new and uncomfortable life wrinkles arrives on the doorstep. Sarah is also being courted by a man from the nearby village, a man who Annie views as unsuitable, so as the summer continues, life in this small country cottage reaches a turning point, and changes everyone’s lives.
The novel is written in present tense from a first-person narrative (that of Annie), and by utilizing this structure, Barry adds a constant pressure of immediacy to the narrative. Things seem to be off-balance and threatening to the main character and this pressure builds up as the summer progresses. You just know something is going to happen… but what will it be?
This is a narrative where nothing much seems to happen on the surface, but looking underneath the veneer shows unexpected depths for these characters who live simple but complex lives. Annie adores looking after the visiting children, but even they have an uncomfortable deep side to them at times, and loving them with such intensity opens to the door to being hurt at the same time. Annie, herself, is a much more complex character than might be expected, but is extremely human at the same time. She might not be one of my favorite characters, but she’s definitely one of the more memorable just because she’s so realistic in how she reacts to the ever-changing world around her.
Barry is a poet and playwright, but has focused on novel-writing in more recent years. (You can tell his familiarity with stage by his effective dialogue and it’s obvious he knows what works.) His writing is lyrical, poetic, and dense and I had to slow down to read it and enjoy it. It was fantastic word engineering and seems to capture the Irish dialect in just the right manner – I could hear the characters as they spoke their dialogue. Various sources report that Barry is considered “one of Irish’s finest writers”, but of course, so did the fans of William Trevor (Felicia’s Journey) and numerous others as well. Irish or not, Barry is a very good writer.
For example, here is a description of how it felt for the main character to endlessly churn milk until it turned into butter:
“And all the while there is that clean, clear smell, that remembers everything in the making of the butter – the meadow, the mouths of the milch cows, their secret stomachs, the grass wrenched from their green selves, the milk in the soft warm udders, the odor of inside skin – all perfect and mixing together into one laden smell, a smell that in its nature is the very opposite of mold and rot, that makes the dairy ring like a guitar…”
“And that is a great moment, a moment of strange stiffness after long labor, and a releasing moment, and it is how I am sure the butterfly feels when at last it breaks from the discarded caterpillar, drying its wings and easily flying to become that graceful thing. And there is a grace in butter, how can I explain it – it is the color we all worship, a simple yellow gold….”
Barry has written quite a few novels, some of which have been in the running for the Booker Prize and others. Although I haven’t read any of his other publications, research shows that Barry tends to connect different books with characters drawn from previous plots and from real life, and in fact, the patriarch in this short dense novel is based on the real-life maternal great-grandfather James Dunne who served as the Chief Superintendent of the Dublin Metropolitan Police from 1913-1922 and oversaw the area surrounding Dublin Castle. (The father of main protagonist Annie has a similar life trajectory in this novel.)
Here is a brief description of the father of Annie, a man who ran the B Regiment of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, and who, at the end of his life, developed Alzheimer’s (or similar) and ended up in the county mental hospital:
“It was all too bleak, such a resplendent man, with his uniforms, his bulk, and his habit of command, as he called it, reduced to an ember of that fire, one coal in the grate, one fragment of coal, barely showing in the darkness…”
Although this is a short novel, it’s very dense writing which is lyrical at the same time. To rush reading this would be to risk missing the turns of phrase and the descriptions of living in the countryside, and as “nothing much seems to happen” plot-wise, I think you’d miss a lot. (I imagine that Barry has been compared to poet-writer John Banville (who wrote The Sea), but I liked Barry more – he wasn’t so concerned with impressing the readers with his vocab knowledge, although both writers use a similar style in some other ways.)
Good read from the TBR pile. (Someone somewhere must have recommended it at some point, but not sure who. Thanks whoever that was.)