A pro­tag­o­nist worth get­ting to know

When Light Is Like Wa­ter

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS & BOOKS - Anne Haverty

By Molly McCloskey Pen­guin, £16.99

On the face of it, this is a novel about love. But like all love sto­ries, it’s re­ally about loss and grief and re­gret. One of the par­ties to love is al­ways ul­ti­mately left to grieve, whether be­cause it fades or is lost in death. In When Light Is Like Wa­ter, an apt ti­tle for this lu­mi­nous novel, Alice has three loves to mourn: her hus­band, her lover and her mother. She even has the loss of her adopted coun­try, Ire­land, and Sligo as a spe­cific part of it, to mourn. And does she have, on a more hid­den level, the flaws in her own na­ture to re­gret, too?

Alice is frank and self- dis­clos­ing, and self-in­ter­ested in that she has the abil­ity to go and get what she wants, whether it’s a man or a job. And yet to speak of her as “Alice” seems wrong. It’s only to­wards the end of her story that the nar­ra­tor re­veals her name. And then you are a little shocked to re­alise that her hid­den­ness may be as sig­nif­i­cant as her frank­ness.

Past re­flec­tions

Years af­ter she fetched up by chance in Sligo, a foot­loose Amer­i­can of 24 work­ing in bars and with vague writ­ing am­bi­tions, Alice is foot­loose once more, drift­ing around a bor­rowed house over­look­ing the pier in Dún Laoghaire as she re­flects on what has brought her to this point.

The years be­tween that time in Sligo and now have been eventful, the most re­cent event and pos­si­bly the most griev­ous be­ing the death of her beloved mother. Her work as a rap­por­teur in con­flict ar­eas for an NGO has allowed her to adopt other places, Nairobi, Ethiopia and Kosovo no­table among them. But the Ire­land of that dis­tant time holds the most in­ten­sity.

Back then in Sligo she found a hus­band, Ed­die, a nice house, a se­cure and pre­dictable fu­ture. Ed­die, who ran a fur­ni­ture busi­ness, turned up at the bar where she worked solely to eye up the Yank newly ar­rived in town, this be­ing a time when for­eign­ers in coun­try towns were still a rare species.

Do­mes­tic life

For the fa­ther­less young Amer­i­can, Ed­die’s sta­bil­ity and the gen­eros­ity of his so­lic­i­tous­ness were per­haps what was most ap­peal­ing about him. But, bit by bit, the do­mes­tic life they share be­comes un­ex­cit­ing, and he, in his dis­creet way, frus­trat­ingly un­ex­citable. Soon Alice, her wild side seek­ing an out­let, is choos­ing not to ac­com­pany him on his buy­ing trips to Dublin or the Con­ti­nent, pre­fer­ring the com­pany of her more un­con­ven­tional friends in the pub.

When she meets a young writer, Cauley, from Dublin, she reck­lessly em­barks on a steamy af­fair that she can’t re­sist flaunt­ing, and more or less de­lib­er­ately en­gi­neers the end of her mar­riage. Cauley, un­able or un­will­ing to bear the drama of it, opts out.

Did Alice love Ed­die? Or in­deed Cauley?

Molly McCloskey’s nar­ra­tor com­bines cool­ness and in­ten­sity, un­sen­ti­men­tal­ity and pas­sion, nostal­gia and clear-sight­ed­ness

Was she sim­ply bored? Too young to com­fort­ably set­tle down in pro­vin­cial Ire­land? Sear­ingly hon­est, Alice scru­ti­nises her­self and her mo­tives, but noth­ing is ever en­tirely clear. Al­though she says a great deal, there is also the im­pres­sion that there are things un­said and left to the reader to con­sider.

Alice leaves Ire­land and ro­man­tic love be­hind, coolly ob­serv­ing and record­ing the ef- fects of war and pri­va­tion as she moves from one for­eign post­ing to an­other. Alice’s mother is shown to be pos­si­bly the pri­mary love of her life. But her am­bi­gu­i­ties and eva­sions in­habit this re­la­tion­ship as well. Her mother adored Ed­die, and Alice could never bring her­self to tell her about her be­trayal of him with Cauley.

Re­mark­able tex­ture

These are the bones of the story and an en­gross­ing story it is. But they do little to con­vey the re­mark­able and lovely tex­ture of When Light Is Like Wa­ter. As a nar­ra­tor, Alice is a com­bi­na­tion of cool­ness and in­ten­sity, pas­sion and un­sen­ti­men­tal­ity, nostal­gia and clear-sight­ed­ness. She is a seeker of truth even if it es­capes her, or she it.

Un­in­ter­ested in self- jus­ti­fi­ca­tion or self-ex­cul­pa­tion, Alice is ten­der to­wards hus­band and lover alike while of­ten us­ing words such as “skulk­ing” and “shame” in con­nec­tion with her­self.

Her ob­ser­va­tions about the world around her can be de­li­cious in their acu­ity. She watches Ire­land evolve through re­cent decades, from the happy- go- lucky time when you could smoke to your heart’s con­tent on trains and hang your head out of open win­dows like “a happy dog”, the half-re­gret­table progress from love letters to smart­phones.

Sort of se­cret

Alice’s in­sights are prob­ing and pre­cise: how hold­ing “that sort of se­cret” can feel like “be­ing in the truth, which is a funny thing to say about de­ceit”; how a boom-time lo­cal boy made good has “a vague air of plunder about him”. She is at­ten­tive to at­mos­pheres wrought by the weather, pink skies and grey, sud­denly ac­cu­mu­lated clouds, sul­try evenings in bars, streets bleak in the rain, in a way that im­parts a sen­su­ous re­al­ity and makes Sligo no less strange and par­tic­u­lar than Nairobi.

Alice ends her story still rest­less and home­less, but with per­haps the most im­por­tant in­sight of all – that her true home is her own self.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: DARA MAC DÓNAILL

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