A protagonist worth getting to know
When Light Is Like Water
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.
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.
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.
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