Reading in the Dark
by Seamus Deane

Vintage, Random House: 1997
$16.10, 233 pp.
ISBN: 0394574400

Review by Ann Skea

Ann Skea is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE Press, Australia)

"Hauntings are, in their way, very specific.
Everything has to be exact, even the vagueness.
My family's history was like that. It came to
me in bits, from people who rarely recognised
what they had told."

This is a book about hauntings, and the haunted; about ghosts and superstitions rooted in Irish history; about family secrets, family loyalties, and the tensions of growing up in a small community where actions and grudges are remembered and passed on from one generation to the next.

Seamus Deane is a superb story-teller and he tells wonderful stories. Sometimes there's a tale within a tale, like that of the changelings, Francis and Frances, told by the boy's Aunt Katie. Sometimes a whole chapter belongs to a character like Father Gildea, who has perfected the art of pedagogic sarcasm:

"Mental Algebra. Ground rules. Well-known, but must be repeated, ... for the sake of the brain-dead and memory-less, who are in the usual slogging majority."

In Father Gildea's maths class nobody but he can win.

There is the story of the terrifying war against the rat-plague in the old air-raid shelters; the experience of the boy's dreadful destruction of his father's rose bushes; and the re-lived embarrassment of the ritual fact-of-life talk with father Nugent. And there are many more. Each story is engrossing in itself, and each adds to our understanding and experience of the boy's world. But the story the boy most wants to hear, the one he hears only in confusing bits and garbled snatches, is his family's history.

From fragmentary memories, partly understood conversations, intuitions of hidden sorrows and a changing awareness of his own relationship with his parents, the boy pieces together the story which the adults hide from him, and from each other. He learns about the uncle who deserted his wife and child and ran off to Chicago; the big shoot-out between the IRA and the police which led to the disappearance of his father's brother, Eddie; and eventually he learns the secret which haunts his mother and which, as he gradually unravels it, comes to haunt him too.

That the secret is linked to events in Northern Ireland's history is not surprising. But Deane's great skill is to immerse the reader in the ordinary life of a boy growing to maturity in Northern Ireland from 1945 to 1971, without dwelling on politics or religion. In the varied experiences of the boy's life, politics and religion are only as vivid as his memories of another boy's accidental death, the furtive collecting of wood for the annual bonfires, or the achievement of his brother's plan to persuade the Bishop to accompany him on a placatory visit to a local police sergeant.

In the title chapter of the book, the boy remembers a romantic novel about Ireland (The Shan Van Vocht - The Poor Old Woman) set in the great rebellion of 1798. He had read this novel in bed at night and imagined himself within it. He remembers, too, a model essay read out in school - a plain account of a country-woman's simple evening routine - quite different to his own essay, which had been full of exotic borrowings from the novel.

"I never thought that stuff was worth writing about. It was ordinary life - no rebellions or love affairs or dangerous flights across the hills at night."

Reading in the Dark, too, is about ordinary life - about "just telling the truth". But it is also full of the imaginative richness which the boy also remembers. It is a story of an ordinary Catholic boy's growth to maturity, haunted by the "whispy, shawly figures from the rebellion, sibilant above the great fire and below the aching, high wind". It is a truly Irish story.

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