Reading in the Dark | Critical Review by Edward Conlon

This literature criticism consists of approximately 5 pages of analysis & critique of Reading in the Dark.
This section contains 1,287 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Edward Conlon

SOURCE: "Violent Griefs and Seductive Hopes," in The New Leader, Vol. LXXX, No. 14, September 8, 1997, pp. 16-17.

In the following review, Conlon compares the autobiographical elements of Reading in the Dark to those of Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, finding Deane's novel representative of a more general Irish identity than McCourt's.

The word "mystery" derives from a Greek term for someone who kept his mouth shut: an initiate into the sacred rites and transcendent experiences of the ancient world. To outsiders, such individuals were distinguished by their refusal to speak of their secrets. So a mystery became what we don't understand, whether in the secular realm or the holy. Both are explored in Reading in the Dark a first novel about an Irish childhood by the eminent scholar and critic Seamus Deane.

As with many first novels, generous helpings of autobiographical material not only lend an emotional warmth and weight to Deane's book but invite speculation concerning its degree of factual content. This being the case, it may be read as a kind of fraternal twin to Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, a memoir, for all its awful and hilarious candor, related with the somewhat suspect panache of the raconteur. The two authors have had long careers as teachers. Their successes with the general reader have been late (Dean is almost 60 years old, and McCourt is over 60) and sudden: Angela's Ashes is a bestseller; Reading in the Dark was shortlisted for Britain's Booker Prize. And the stories have obvious commonalities beginning with their hoarily familiar backdrops (church and pub in one, church and the Irish Republican Army in the other). In each, the shapeliness of fiction and the rude force of fact combine to potent effect.

Yet McCourt's memoir about the viciously circular odyssey of his early life in the slums of Brooklyn and Limerick has the feel of singularity. His family was dysfunctional in a way that goes beyond jargon (it could not even feed its children). His chronicle is about the exceptional, about failure and misfortune and survival that are extraordinary, and largely self-wrought. Its terrors and delights have the consoling remoteness of legend. A progressive might argue that the lack of condoms, penicillin and Alcoholics Anonymous is all that stood between the McCourts and stability, but the book exhibits a surpassing conviction that character and fate were the true agents of destiny for them. Angela's Ashes is bardic and vaudevillian, stage Irish in both senses, recalling Brendan Behan and J. P. Donleavy as much as Peter O'Toole and Richard Harris.

Deane's nameless narrator on the other hand, is the transparently ordinary every child of literature, a watcher and listener, self-revealing primarily through and against his revelations of others. His is the story of stories: of history, of ghosts and of family secrets. It covers the public epic of the Irish struggle, with its slogans and rebel songs, and the profoundly articulate silences of a family whose martyrs and traitors evade easy judgment. The tales are not so much what you tell, or what you do; they define who you are.

Deane was born in Derry in 1940, a period of orderly oppression between the civil wars of his parents' generation and the continuing Troubles. His narrator's coming of age is ironically undercut by the recognition that progress, personal or national, is both an honorable ambition and a fool's desire. The forward march of time brings less the liberation of adulthood than a deepening immersion into a "haunted forever." The border between past and present and between good people and bad, seems as arbitrary and penetrable as that between the Irish Republic and the North. What happened to the McCourts happened only to the McCourts but what happens to the characters in Deane's book happens to everyone in the neighborhood, and keeps on happening

Reading in the Dark gathers little episodes as if they were tiles in a mosaic to create an image of a child's life in a family and a country where division is the norm. But for Deane the opposition of Catholic and Protestant is less significant, and less interesting, than the tensions between for-giveness and forgetting, memory and myth. The narrator's family is working class, Catholic, large and loving, a sturdy vessel seemingly able to withstand the upsets and losses they encounter.

The disappearance of two uncles—his father's brother, his mother's sister's husband—adds a note of color and mystery to family conversations, but to him as a child the vanished uncles are quaintly folkloric figures. The similarity of their supposed exits (both are suspected of having gone to Chicago) foreshadows a link between their fates, as well as a failure of the imagination on his parents' part, and perhaps the failure of stories themselves as a power to explain and protect, tame and pay tribute to an unruly past. Something has to face the past, and since it can't be the family. the stories must try. As Deane has written of Seamus Heaney, "writing has itself become a form of guilt and a form of expiation from it."

The narrator learns as he grows older not only what his parents sought to keep from him but what they kept from each other, out of kindness and guilt, and the potency and terrible burden of secrets that travel through generations like a curse. Deane describes their toll on his mother with heartbreaking tact: "She cried for weeks, then months. A summer passed in a nausea of light, and we took turns at the cooking and shopping…." His mother observes, when she later recovers, that "people in small places make big mistakes. Not bigger than the mistakes of other people. But there is less room for big mistakes in small places."

There are wonderful set pieces of familiar scenes, like the narrator's sit-down with a priest to learn the facts of life. It begins with the metaphysical preamble ("First, the life-is-a-mystery bit …") and moves on to the anatomical particulars, leaving him to wonder: "Do you have to know Latin to do this? Does He say to Her, 'Here you are. This is from the Latin for throw or send.'" Typical boy and archetypal moment are rendered with an unforced freshness that rescues the scene from cliché: "What I had heard was certainly improbable. It sounded like a feat of precision engineering, one which I couldn't associate with what the church called lust, which seemed wild, fierce, devil-may-care, like eating and drinking together while dancing to music on the top of the table." The book has many similar moments of quiet comedy and casual poetry that heighten and relieve the dark drama of historical reckoning.

They are also essential because the mystery in the plot, although highly satisfying, is unpacked a little too soon and a little too neatly; the narrator still has to tug at loose ends after the curtain has already been torn open. Eventually, it becomes clear that for the author the mystery of what happened is secondary, subsumed by the mystery of why it did. We never get more than a partial explanation, but this must suffice: It allows the truthful stories and the useful, protective ones to compete in shaping a past that has a defining grasp on the present.

Deane is persuaded that being Irish is a very specific way of being human, one that permits the determined to have the last laugh, no matter who the joke is on. For him the question is less whether Ireland will ever be free than whether the Irish will be free of Ireland, with its violent hopes and seductive griefs. Reading in the Dark's answer, in its confession of sins, betrayal of secrets and outpouring of songs, is—not so sadly—that no one can say yet.

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This section contains 1,287 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Edward Conlon