Reading in the Dark | Critical Review by Julia O'Faolain

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)
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Critical Review by Julia O'Faolain

SOURCE: "The Boy Who Wanted to Know," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4878, September 27, 1996, p. 22.

In the following review, O'Faolain identifies the narrative value of folktales in Reading in the Dark as compromising the novel's realism.

This first novel by the poet Seamus Deane has the focused compression of poetry. Short sections—lots of white paper here—present carefully chosen incidents whose meanings expand into complexity as the narrative gathers momentum.

Reading in the Dark is, on one level, an optimistic tale. As an Irish Bildungsroman, confronting familiar hurdles, it follows a Catholic Derry boy through his childhood in the 1940s to the great day when he can tell his family that he's got his degree: "a First". It is a first for the family, too, and the father, an electrician's mate who "would have loved to have been educated", waits hours for his son to come boozily in the door with the news. Remorse at seeing his father's face makes the boy relinquish a teasing plan to pretend failure. He says at once, "I got it." His father smiles, and the bitter-sweet moment could be the climax of a simpler novel. But this family's emotional life is strangled.

The hidden side of their story emerges slowly, as what starts out like a classic account of a bright working-class boy's growing to consciousness, joining the middle class and being detribalized, reveals a darker dimension. Political treachery has leached into private experience, and the boy's relations with his mother have been damaged, for, far from being the wan, positive but passive mother-figure so familiar in Irish fiction, she turns out to be an Eve who carries and transmits a taint.

This is not the only reversal of expectancy. But then, reversals are normal in a place where a teacher's pep talk warns pupils that each year is bringing them "closer to entering a world of wrong, insult, injury, unemployment, a world where the unjust hold power and the ignorant rule". Small wonder in such a context—Catholic Derry, 1948—that the boy who wants to know more than his siblings finds himself reaping rue. Knowledge does not empower, and, with or without a dark family secret, life for Deane's unnamed hero was never going to be easy. Frustration has half-deranged his community, including the priests who teach him and the policemen who have him and his mates always in their bad books. Two chilling sequences feature bullies from these corps. Running their gauntlet clearly took the sort of resourcefulness which turns woodcutters' sons into ogre-killers.

The first incident shows a priest setting traps for his pupils, while allocating numbers of canestrokes for all likely contingencies. "Every morning, at nine o'clock sharp, he came rushing into the room his soutane swishing, his face reddened as if in anger, his features oddly calm." Soon he claims to "owe" one boy eighty-four strokes.

This is realism. Pedagogic sadism was widespread in the Catholic Ireland of those years. I know this because my father wrote about it in a Dublin paper, and the seething letters he received from all over the country included some about boys being hospitalized. Priests and those they appointed were untouchable then.

So the "black uniforms", as one character calls them, were indeed ogres. But the encounter with Police Sergeant Burke is pleasing, because our hero gets the better of him. Burke, knowing the family shame—a relative was a police informer—forces the boy to ride in the police car, so that people will think him too an informer. The boy is then ostracized by all, until, in desperation, he turns to the bishop. He is sincerely eager, he claims, to beg Burke's pardon for throwing a stone at his car. But how can he? If he's seen entering the police station, people will think he's informing. The bishop sends a priest with him to see Burke. This manoeuvre is observed and, later, the boy tells his mates that the priest was scolding Burke for "his lies about me. I think Burke's going to be excommunicated…." The boy is welcomed back to the community. The occasion is a rite of passage.

What shows through this incident like a watermark is its use of folk-tale elements, both formal and thematic. The past may be "blood under the bridge", but its after-effects need neutralizing if you belong to a family with a blight on it. This wisdom, like the two tricks—Burke's and the boy's—belong to the mental world of the yarns which Deane's characters enjoy telling each other. His novel is pod-full of these, and it is clear that their use is therapeutic in the stricken Derry community where few things can be said clearly. Ghost and fairy lore is a useful source of metaphor when you need to tell children why one man was struck dumb, others disappeared, and their own mother is unhinged. The outcome of score-settling and murder is falsified memory.

So the folk-tale works credibly here. By contrast, there is some Yeatsian hokum in the invocation of the saga heroes who might rise "from their thousand-year sleep to make final war on the English". As though registering this, the prose cringes into cliché when Deane's nameless—universal?—protagonist looks out from the old heroes' fort to "where cottage lights twinkled, as distant as stars".

Throughout, the novel counterpoints old and new. Even on its last page, armoured trucks are followed past the house by a gypsy boy riding his horse bareback out of an almost lost past. This and the substitution in the "haunted" mother's mind of her old obsession by thoughts of her newly dead husband, provide a resolution which would probably work better in a poem. The effect here, though seductive, diminishes the vigour of the realism which becomes doubly distanced by being seen both through the lens of memory and those of a writer as manipulative as Seamus Deane. There are, as I hope I have indicated, beautifully told passages in this intelligent book. Its realism is impeccable, but our collusion with the story is interrupted a little too often by authorial nudges, inviting us to savour yet another artful effect.

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This section contains 1,014 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Julia O'Faolain