I am so grateful for the Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize), for introducing me to Deirdre Madden. I read her 2009 shortlisted novel, Molly Fox’s Birthday, two years ago (read my review), and then discovered she’d been nominated once before, in 1997, for One by One in the Darkness. It took ages for me to find this book — my library didn’t have it, and it was outrageously expensive through online retailers. Finally, Paperbackswap granted my wish. And I couldn’t be happier; this quiet, unassuming novel is a gem.
The story is set in 1994, just before the IRA ceasefire. Three sisters converge on their family home for a week. Middle sister Cate arrives on her annual visit, weeks earlier than usual, citing work as an excuse. Oldest sister Helen visits almost every weekend, and immediately spots inconsistencies in Cate’s story. Sally, the youngest, is a teacher in the village and lives at home with her mother. Not surprisingly, it turns out Cate has reasons for visiting early which create some conflict in the family.
The relationships between the sisters and their mother are fleshed out through flashbacks to their childhood:
For the pattern of their lives was as predictable as the seasons. The regular round of necessity was broken by celebrations and feasts: Christmas, Easter, family birthdays. The scope of their lives was tiny but it was profound, and to them, it was immense. The physical bounds of their world were confined to little more than a few fields and houses, but they knew these places with the deep, unconscious knowledge that a bird or a fox might have for its habitat. The idea of home was something they lived so completely that they would be been at a loss to define it. But they would have known to be inadequate such phrases as ‘It’s where you’re from,’ ‘It’s the place you live,’ ‘It’s where your family are.’
Sadly, this predictable, peaceful pattern was shattered in 1968-69 as civil rights protests became increasingly violent. Living in a rural village, events seemed remote for a while. But eventually they, too, were affected by senseless, tragic acts.
I loved the juxtaposition of past and present, which delivered a richly detailed story in just 180 pages. This was the first time I had read such a personal account of this period in Irish history. I felt like I knew these people. Their history was new to me, but their contemporary struggles were not. And the ending took my breath away, revealing details only alluded to before, while leaving so much open to interpretation.