Thanks to NetGalley and to Sceptre for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.
This is a beautiful novel. Its structure is simple and so is the plot. Written in the first person, this is the story of a man, Maurice Hannigan, a widower, who has come to a decision about what to do with the rest of his life. Having made that decision, it has come the time to explain why he has decided what he has. The novel is structured around his conversation with his son, Kevin, who lives in the USA and is not there in person; therefore it becomes a monologue, with an intended audience of one. We, the readers, act as his son’s stand-ins. Maurice, as we soon learn, has never been the talking kind, so this is a bit of a departure for him, probably because of the time of his life and because he is not eye-to-eye with the person he is addressing.
Maurice has booked the best room in the hotel and is drinking five toasts to the people who have had the most impact in his life. In the process of talking about them and their influence, we get to hear about his life and what made him who he is. He chooses carefully his drinks, measures his words, and also the mementos he has kept. He drinks ale and also his preferred drink, whisky, and shares photographs, a pipe, a coin, and plenty of memories. He toasts to his brother, who died of TB when he was very young, always protected him and was his role model; to the daughter who never was and has always remained present for him; to his wife’s sister, who spent most of her life in psychiatric hospitals, took to him from the first and played an important role in solving an interesting mystery; to his son, who always had different dreams but tried hard to keep in touch; and to his wife, the one and only, the person he cannot live without.
Through his toasts we learn a lot about Maurice, his world, and the changes in Ireland through the years: when he was young life was harsh for farmers, the owners of the big house could behave as if they owned the people around them, school was hard for those who could not learn at the normal rhythm, and a family feud could last for years. Ireland moves with the times, and we hear about his change of circumstances, but he finds it difficult to let go of his wish for revenge and his resentments, of his low self-confidence because he never did well with books (later on in life he realises he suffers from dyslexia), and especially, of his grief and bereavement. He has suffered many losses through life, and he has many regrets, although he has also done some good things, intentionally or not.
Maurice feels real and very familiar, and I think most readers will be reminded of somebody they know. He is not the most sympathetic character at first sight, although he has gone through a lot, and some of his decisions are harsh and mean-spirited. During the book we get to understand what has made him as he is and it is difficult not to feel touched by his narrative, even if we don’t have much in common with him. There are plenty of family secrets revealed, and he learns to let go of the hatred he held for most of his life. The author writes beautifully, and without using complex language manages to convey true feeling and emotions. She gives her character a recognisable and true voice, dry and sharp, with touches of black humour and always understated, even when talking about those dearest to him. There is a beautiful love story at the heart of this novel, and it is very difficult not to feel moved by it. As for the ending… I won’t discuss it in detail, but I don’t think it will come as a surprise to most readers, although what might be surprising is how we feel about it by then.
Although the author is well-known, this is her first novel, and it is a thing of beauty, poetic and sincere. Here I share some examples of her writing:
It’s an awful thing, to witness your mother cry. You cannot cure nor mend nor stick a plaster on.
Forty-nine years ago, I met Molly, and only for fifteen minutes. But she has lived in this dilapidated heart of mine ever since.
I watched her skin survive the years, softly, folding upon itself. I touched it often, still hopelessly loving every bit of her, every line that claimed her, every new mark that stamped its permanency.
Loneliness, that fecker again, wreaking havoc on us mortals. It’s worse than any disease, gnawing away at our bones as we sleep, plaguing our minds when awake.
These past two years have been rotten. I’ve felt the ache of her going in my very bones. Every morning, every hour of every day I’ve dragged her loss around with me. The worst thing has been the fear that I’ll wake one morning and she’ll be gone from my memory forever, and that, son, that, I just can’t do.
This is a gorgeous book that touches on important subjects and deep feelings without going over the top and being sugary sweet. It is not a page turner plot-wise, and there isn’t much action (other than in some of the memories), so it will not suit readers who are looking for a fast plot. But anybody who loves a character-driven novel, enjoys savouring the quality and poetry of good writing and is looking for new authors will have a field day. I am going to follow Anne Griffin’s career with interest, and I expect to hear great things from her.