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Undertow


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by John F Deane

Open Book

Review by Chris Williams

When I started this novel, I had already been put off by the description on the back of the cover. A description that includes such words and phrases as "sheer survival is difficult", "savage forces of poverty, disease and religious restraint", "terrible things", "rape, incest, bestiality", "brutal and disruptive", "gradual disintegration" and "legacy of suffering". The only words to give the reader slight hope are "mythic, lyrical and moving". I was looking at a potential 314 pages of black suffering and despair, not an inviting prospect.

So, what did I find? Firstly I will admit that nearly all of the above words do fit this book, although the "religious restraint" is peculiarly lacking. In fact the priest, who rejoices in the splendid name of Father Crowe, makes only the smallest appearance in the book. Also, unless you consider a man sucking milk directly from a cow's udder constitutes "bestiality", then that isn't here either. All the rest is though, but what I felt, reading the novel, is that the mythic, lyrical and moving qualities were the ones that dominated.

This is in no way an easy novel, either in its subject matter or in its narrative style. Firstly, the subject matter. The book is set on a small island off the west of Ireland and features the interacting lives of some of the inhabitants there and also on a smaller island off this initial island. There is a girl, who starts menstruating during the novel, who is treated appallingly by her family, and who seems to be deaf? dumb? an idiot? There is a woman who spends time with tinkers and whose son is desperate to know who his father is. There is a woman who has just discovered love but who is dying of consumption. There are two monsters of men, whose size and power dominate, but who are different in their uses of the world and there are two sisters running a store, whose own true power only emerges at the end.

Secondly, the narrative style. All the above characters are not in the same time. The book interweaves stories from 1951 and 1997. It is extremely episodic in nature, working mostly through the medium of short chapters narrating incidents in various story strands. The author is weaving a web, a time-displaced web, the strands of which will only finally make a whole at the very end of the book when Angelica shocks us, Angie shocks her son and Alice 'n' Grace, Grace 'n' Alice, take their stand.

I am forced to admit that this style didn't always work for me. At times I was unsure when I was. This, even though the author clearly tells us at the start of each chapter. I still found myself getting confused. Occasionally, the same would happen with the language and I'd get a bit lost in the dialect, although some of the cursing is certainly rather fine: "Stuff the pig with shite and you get a sick stomach, but stuff the pig with whiskey and she's flyin'."

Note that "I am forced to admit", because I don't want to admit it. Now, having finished the book and having finally seen John F. Deane's web laid out in its full beauty, I don't want to admit that there's anything wrong with this finely crafted work. This is a novel of imagination and considerable power and there are moments; Ruth and Eoin with the seals and eating with Eoin's parents, Marty and Danni approaching hesitant sex, the picture of Alison's deaf life; that are so beautiful, I don't want to tarnish them with words criticising what surrounds them.

This is a book that John F. Deane and the Blackstaff Press can be proud of. But maybe, if there's a next edition, the words "mythic, lyrical and moving", could be given more prominence on the cover?

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Buy this book from Amazon

ISBN 0 85640 728 3

Published by the Blackstaff Press, 2002

314 pp, paperback

Retail price 8.99

 

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