Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane
As you may know, I’m going to be in Ireland over the holidays on a school trip entitled “Literary Ireland”—as you might guess, I’m currently taking an Irish Literature course. The first novel for the course was Seamus Deane’s Reading in the Dark, which I’d never heard or encountered before. Since it was due the week after Dragon*Con, I powered through it in two or three days right before, so that means this review may not be comprehensive as it could have been. Oh, well.
Reading in the Dark follows an unnamed young man growing up in 1940s and 1950s Derry in Northern Ireland. Death, poverty, and Protestant policemen are the usual oppressors here, but our unnamed narrator has another complication—the story of his Uncle Eddie, an IRA fighter who either died in a blaze of glory or fled to Chicago. As he digs further and further into what really happened to Eddie, he discovers a web of lies, secrets, and deceit that affects his entire family as he doggedly pursues the past even as he rapidly grows into the present.
Some students in my class—and even my wonderful and venerable professor—have admitted that they find the beginning of Reading in the Dark slow. This puzzles me. It opens with a scene of our narrator (oh, this is going to get old fast, I can tell) and his mother finding a ghost on the stairwell. It’s a sweet moment between mother and son—one of the aspects of the novel that I really love—and it foreshadows how much power the past has over these people. Towards the end of the novel, a member of the family goes to London and ends up marrying a black man; it’s the first time you really understand how focused these characters and this town is on the past. And it’s not just the immediate past of the Irish Revolution, but the entire history of Ireland. Fort Grianan plays an important part in the novel, as a place the boys of Derry go to play (and play tricks on each other) and the site of one event in the great mystery of Eddie’s life. I will, however, admit that it takes a while for the narrator to start piecing together Eddie’s life purposefully, but all of these scenes take on greater resonance once you know what his mother knows, and Deane’s beautiful writing style ensures that the time spent away from the mystery at the beginning is not wasted. (Set-up is important. The book I’m reading now is almost devoid of set-up, and it’s driving me bonkers.)
The novel is not solely focused on Eddie’s story—at least, not at first. As you go through the novel, you discover that seemingly unrelated characters were involved in or knew about Eddie’s ultimate fate, but kept quiet for the sake of the family. The narrator’s sister dies (as does an aunt and his grandfather, which kicks off his curiosity about Eddie’s story), the boys get involved in scuffles with the local police (which the narrator calls in the Catholic clergy for), celebrations come and go, a particularly sarcastic priest teaches lessons in a handful of honestly funny scenes, and stories are told, among which Eddie is initially just one of many. Of particular note is the haunting ghost story about two twins that explains why a particular family is “cursed”—in class, we wondered briefly if this just wasn’t a convenient way to explain away unsavory types, by pinning the blame on the supernatural elements. But as the narrator grows and finds that Eddie’s story still affects everyone around him, he begins investigating, and that’s when the novel comes into its heartbreaking own, as he discovers the terrible knowledge he wields over his parents, who may or may not be willfully ignorant of the details in order to maintain a functioning, if not loving, life together. I found this fascinating; for some reason or another, I don’t find mother and son relationships explored that much in fiction, and to see it explored in such detail here and so tragically was fascinating.
Reading in the Dark is partly autobiographical on the part of Seamus Deane, the Irish poet and Notre Dame professor, although to what degree I’m not sure. But the poetry comes out in Deane’s style, which is lush, loving, and bittersweet. The narrator often finds himself paralyzed by moments when his family almost tells him what they know; he yearns for the knowledge but doesn’t want to be the one to ask. He wants the information to be gifted to him, almost as if it is his birthright and it’s been denied to him by the secrets his family keeps. But it’s this very birthright that makes his life difficult; without all the information, he can’t make the right choices, or at least the choices his community tells him is right—choices that often end in violence, such as his father’s insistence that he fight back rather than turn the other cheek. There’s plenty of ground to cover here, and I look forward to doing so in class.
Bottom line: A partly autobiographical novel, Reading in the Dark is a lushly written mystery that takes shape once the unnamed narrator decides to investigate the story of his missing uncle Eddie, the IRA gunman. Worth a read.
I bought this used book from Amazon.