Review: Two Days in Aragon, by Molly Keane

Set in 1920 during the Troubles, Two Days in Aragon is a dramatic portrayal of the Irish at this point in history.  Anglo-Irish families were part of the privileged social class, loyal to the British crown and living in stately homes like Aragon.  They were set apart from their Irish Catholic servants, who had very different political views and a markedly different way of life.

The Foxes were one such Anglo-Irish family.  Mrs. Fox, a widow, lived at Aragon with her two daughters.  Sylvia’s life was caught up in tea parties, tennis, and pursuit of military men.  Her younger sister, Grania, “was a fat little blonde with pretty bones under her flesh; rather a slut, and inclined to wear party shoes with old tweeds.”  There was a fierce rivalry between the sisters, and seemingly little warmth in the family.

But the force behind Aragon’s greatness was its housekeeper, Nan O’Neill.  Strong, controlling, and sometimes cruel, she is fiercely devoted to Aragon.  But hers is more than a servant’s basic devotion to her master, and Nan has spent a lifetime trying to set herself apart from the rest of the Irish servant class.  Yet she’s not really part of the family, nor is she accepted by the Irish.  And she is appalled to discover a liaison between Grania and her son Foley.  Nan understands the social boundaries, perhaps more than anyone else.

Nan runs a tight ship and exudes professional decorum, but her dark side emerges when she cares for Miss Pidgie, a batty old aunt living with the Fox family.  Pidgie is a simple soul, comic and tremendously sad at the same time.  Her world is confined to Aragon.  She has an odd habit of collecting bird eggs from their nests, to give to imaginary figures she calls her “Diblins.”  She is poorly dressed, with painful shoes, but no one pays attention to her needs.  In fact, Nan derives sadistic pleasure from Pidgie’s hardships, and from meting out small “privileges” — a walk outdoors, or a bit of sweet with tea — on her own terms.

The central conflict in this novel involves the capture of a pair of British soldiers by some Irish mercenaries.  Sylvia is in love with one of the soldiers, but masks her fear by pressing on with her social commitments.  When Foley is implicated in the capture, Grania worries herself sick while Nan takes matters into her own hands.  Once again Nan’s inner strength prevails, and she takes a tremendous personal risk to do what she believes is right.

I loved Molly Keane’s writing, especially her ability to capture the essence of a character in just a few words.  Even a minor character like Frazer, the butler, came to life through phrases like this:  “Frazer hunched his shoulders like a sick crow, and stooped again to dirty tea-cups and crummy plates.”  As the conflict built, Keane deftly wove each character’s thread together in a way that showed their essence, even giving the heretofore shallow Sylvia a critical heroic role at the story’s climax.  This was my first Molly Keane novel, and I have many more on my shelves to look forward to.