Reading in the Dark | Critical Review by Anne Devlin

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Reading in the Dark.
This section contains 1,014 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Anne Devlin

Critical Review by Anne Devlin

SOURCE: "Growing Up in Ireland's Shadowlands," in The Observer Review, August 25, 1996, p. 17.

In the following review, Devlin evaluates the narrative structure and style of Reading in the Dark, indicating the relation between stories and reality.

From the moment on the opening page of Reading in the Dark when the boy is stopped on the stairs by his mother, because a shadow has fallen between them, I was disarmed, though I had to wait 134 pages until the shadow surfaced again in its original context, in the tale 'Mother', before I understood that it was never possible to go straight at this thing that has fallen between them.

I am of the opinion that women and men have different strategies when it comes to telling stories—as with everything else. My favourite book of a haunting is Toni Morrison's Beloved—but not for Seamus Deane is Morrison's confrontational opening: '124 was spiteful.' Morrison says she does it so the ones who won't like it leave immediately. Deane lays out his book like a collection of folktales—and though I started after his shadow on the landing. I was soon halted by the next tale on people with green eyes.

Reading in the Dark is built like a labyrinth—a labyrinth of separate passages which in the end turns into one at the centre. The father tells the story of the field of the disappeared because he is unable to tell the actual story of his brother's disappearance. The boy hears the story of Larry's silence—he has had sex with a she-devil—only later to hear another story that on the same night Larry executed an informer.

The visionary stories and folk-tales are invented to disguise something more dangerous to the community's sanity. And trapped at the centre is the heartbreaking tale, 'Mother'—where the family watch the woman go mad from a knowledge she cannot share.

I wanted to run into the maw of the sobbing, to throw my arms wide, to receive it, to shout at it, to make it come at me in words, words, words,—no more of this ceaseless noise, is animality, its broken inflections of my mother.

The boy is bewildered by the fact that his father is burdened by a secret which his mother knows is a lie; but if the secret lie only burdens his father, the revealed truth would kill him.

In 'Accident', the boy sees Rory Hannaway killed under a reversing truck, but feels nothing for Rory's mother or the driver when they see the crushed child. Yet when a policeman arrives and is sick, the boy suspends his fear despite his family's persistent persecution by the police and loathing of the traditional enemy, and feels only sympathy for the man. His sense of treachery is only abated when he accepts a lie from another boy who tells him that it was a police car which killed Rory. Only then can he experience true sorrow for the legitimate sufferers—Rory's mother and the driver who will never work again. In other words, the lie—the distorted narrative—becomes an antidote when the sensibility has become impaired or traumatised through fear or shock; this must be, if not the cultural function of narrative, at least the psychological function.

Art comes out of distortions: the distortions also make us ill. They make us ill because no one else accepts them.

When the boy translates all he has gleaned about the family secret into Irish and reads it to his uncomprehending father while his mother listens, it is an impulse to end the isolation imposed on him by knowing too much. Other languages do seem to provide a safer zone than the mother tongue for certain kinds of experience. Deane aptly demonstrates this in the marvellous encounter where the priestly master attempts to explain the facts of life to the boy in a series of Latin terms: 'Emittere, to send out. The seed is sent out …' Finally, the boy is forced to ask himself: 'Do you have to have Latin to do this?'

We are in the territory of the power of the word. No more so than when his mother finally finds words to articulate her grief and she says: 'Paradise was not far away when I died.' I found myself holding my breath here. This is the language of shock.

Paradise is very close to catastrophe; this is the nature of opposites. The boy does give us a glimpse of what this paradise might be in a vision of the druids' herbal spells and the gorse-tainted air around the old fort at Grianan in Donegal—the home of the sleeping and legendary warriors and where too the sounds of the druid women's watery voices can be heard murmuring with sexual pleasure: 'Yes-ess. Yes-ess.'

The location of Paradise is on Lough Foyle, and the catastrophic feud farm is on the opposite bank, Lough Swilly with Derry between and everything to be fought for.

But that paradise has been violated and catastrophe is the norm. The whole family tragedy has been set in motion by a lie perpetrated by a policeman. Burke, in an act of revenge against the boy's grandfather. Knowing the truth doesn't help: we have to know how to deflect grief enough to let love flow undiminished and undisturbed on its true course, if paradise is ever to become anything more than an elusive longing for a past that never existed and a future—a day—that will never come.

A law has been broken—a taboo older than the laws of consanguinity. It is this that the boy knows and the father does not. So the boy must go away to allow the mother to love the father without his eyes on her.

It is contact with reality that is killing, not the magical shadow worlds we create to combat it. That is why we need our stories. I have nowhere read a portrait of a woman going mad with grief as shattering as the portrait of the mother in this tale nor anywhere a sense so achingly described as that of the boy's distress at losing her, through having too much access to her history.

(read more)

This section contains 1,014 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Anne Devlin