Originally featured in the print edition editions of The Irish Post on Tuesday June 18th, 2013.
Faber and Faber, 224pp, £12.99, ISBN-13: 978-0571290864
FOR some time now, Dublin- based Antrim novelist Deirdre Madden has established herself as one of Ireland’s most consistent and skilled living writers. She first broke through in earnest with One By One in the Darkness (Faber, 1996), an unforgettable account of a week in the lives of three sisters during the IRA ceasefire in 1994.
Madden’s ninth and latest effort, Time Present and Time Past, is mostly set in the leafy, middle- class Dublin suburb of Howth during 2006. Fintan Terrence Buckley, a 47-year-old lawyer based in south Dublin, seems to live the comfortable life of the average Dubliner in the affluent days of the Celtic Tiger. After developing an interest in old auto chrome photographs, Fintan begins to experience strange states of altered consciousness and auditory hallucinations, which affect his sense of time and his interest in photography ultimately lends itself to an interest in how he remembers or imagines the past.
Through Buckley’s family- his fashionista sister Martina, daughter Lucy, his macho son, his judgmental brother Niall, mother Joan, his cousin Edward and a cast of many others- we get sense of the hidden histories that some or all of these characters harbor. Madden’s brilliance is in her ability to contrast the surface impressions of her characters with that which is really beneath their skin. This is most memorably executed in the back story of Buckley’s single sister, Martina, and that an indescribably violent act during her days living in London accounts for why she is single; Madden’s gift is in reconciling the past with the present, producing three- dimensional characters.
A central theme that ties the middle- aged, middle- class characters together is the theme of progress and analyzing what accounts for progress: is it better to move forward or move backwards into the past? Through small strokes, Madden sustains this rhetorical question over many pages; one such example being the friendship that Fintan strikes up with Conor, a wounded, desperate bachelor who is a father of one of Lucy’s friends who makes Fintan realize that he has, thankfully, none of the insecurities of Conor.
The most telling example of Madden’s central theme, however, is the episode set in the North of Ireland, where Fintan and Martina discover that their grandparent’s home has been destroyed by their cousin Edward in favor of a more modern dwelling, which becomes an metaphor for the relationship that Irish people had with their past, their traditions during the Celtic Years and whether pouring concrete everywhere smeared over the cracks of our past.
At 224 pages, Time Present and Time Past- like it’s excellent predecessor, Molly Fox’s Birthday, and One By One in the Darkness- can, like Philip Roth’s later novels, be read in one sitting; in this sense, Madden both remembers and achieves that old adage applied to John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men; that it takes two hours to read and twenty years to forget.
Time Present And Time Past is out now.