Reading in the Dark | Critical Review by Terry Eagleton

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Reading in the Dark.
This section contains 774 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Terry Eagleton

SOURCE: "The Bogside Bard," in New Statesman, Vol. 125, No. 4299, August 30, 1996, p. 46.

In the following review, Eagleton concentrates on the public appeal of Deane's fictional rendering of personal memories in Reading in the Dark.

A colonial culture is a culture of secrecy. Seamus Deane's superb first novel [Reading in the Dark], set in the Derry Bogside of the 1940s and 1950s, is all about who knows what in a place awash with rumours, hauntings, metamorphoses and misinformation. People and things materialise and evaporate, mysteriously change shape or sex, cocoon themselves and others in ever thicker layers of deception. It is a world as materialist as Balzac's, splashed with scents, tastes and patterns of light, yet spectral as Henry James', as the certitudes of the present are infiltrated by the ghostly fictions of the past.

Set in an actual border region, Reading in the Dark also occupies some transitional zone between fiction and autobiography. In doing so it acts out the crossings of fact and fable over which the narrative broods. Its youthful protagonist, a kind of cross between Lawrence's Paul Morel [in Son and Lovers] and James Joyce's Stephen Dedalus [in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man], grows up in a postwar Northern Ireland of rural beauty and state brutality, son of a Catholic Republican family with a shattering secret at its heart.

In a venerable Irish tradition, the secret turns out to involve betrayal, and locks the mother into a paralytic, untranslatable sorrow: one of the most poignant aspects of a story rich in emotional subtlety. At the core of this dazzlingly eloquent narrative is something muffled and labyrinthine that beggars speech. This is a domestic tragedy, to be sure, but, in the complex interlacings of public and private histories of a colonial society, it also becomes an allegory of a people's grief.

In this parochial, lovingly rendered world, it is no longer possible to disentangle family feuds, hauntings and buried terrors from a wider politics that blights and shrivels lives. The scent of rain or earth or hair in this atmospheric book is threaded with the smell of injustice. It is a working-class, Republican version of Irish Gothic, which is similarly full of domestic violence, festering secrets, the return of the repressed. Like such Gothic tales, this novel is on the cusp between past and present, aware that a past which has poisoned the present might also, suitably reconstructed, help to repair it.

How salvageable that past actually is, or how likely it is to fragment into fantasy, is one of Deane's most pressing preoccupations—both here and in his attempt, as general editor of the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, to coax some coherence from the ruptured traditions of his country's literature.

Of all genres, autobiography seems the most confident that the past can be recuperated; but that form is crossed here with a fiction that threatens to undermine its self-assurance. And if myth and history interbreed here, they do so with a vengeance in the Northern Ireland that is the book's subject.

It is part of Deane's artistic triumph that Reading in the Dark is at once an act of loving fidelity to the social landscapes of his childhood and a hard-headed refusal to idealise them. Its sombre depth is laced with a wry humour.

The book is least successful in its cuffing of autobiographical material into fictional shape: we don't see the political betrayals at stake, we don't know the characters involved, so that for the hero's grandfather to have arranged the execution of his uncle is a more gripping matter for him than it is for us. The past that determines the tale is too notional, as autobiography gets the edge over imaginative recreation.

Yet the past, after all, is what we are made of; and in the Derry and Donegal of this book it is literally coeval with the present, strewing the contemporary landscape in the form of ruins. Seamus Deane, perhaps Ireland's finest literary critic, is also a well-known socialist Republican, and reading this novel one can already hear the grinding of the literary Unionist knives. Isn't this just the sort of nostalgic, superstitious, violence-ridden stuff one would expect from a Bogside bard?

In fact, Reading in the Dark takes the hackneyed mode of childhood remembrance and wrings from it a literary masterpiece, couching its story in a prose at once serviceable and beautifully poetic. A work of adroit artistry, it is also the kind of story one can imagine the plain people of Derry eagerly devouring. A work with the sophistication of a John Banville might thus have the potential readership of a Maeve Binchy.

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This section contains 774 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Terry Eagleton