Match­stick Man

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE -

Ju­lia Kelly

Head of Zeus, hard­back, 288 pages, €20.49 it is up­lift­ing and life-af­firm­ing, and at times even funny.

Ju­lia’s 2008 de­but novel (more a cre­ative mem­oir), With My Lazy Eye, was ac­claimed by crit­ics, the story of an awk­ward lit­tle girl grow­ing up in a priv­i­leged home in Dublin in the 1970s (Ju­lia’s fa­ther was the late John Kelly, a Fine Gael Min­is­ter). “The fresh­est voice in Irish fic­tion since the wonderful early nov­els of Edna O’Brien,” John Banville said at the time.

In the decade since then, Ju­lia has pro­duced just one other novel, The Play­ground, and this, her third book, re­veals why. She has been dis­tracted for half of that time look­ing af­ter Char­lie.

But this book is not just an ac­count of Char­lie’s de­scent into Alzheimer’s. It’s as much Ju­lia’s own story and that of her re­la­tion­ship with Char­lie, who she met in 2004 when the two of them spent time in the writ­ers and artists cen­tre at An­nagh­mak­er­rig. For Ju­lia, then 35, this was another attempt to make a start as a writer, hav­ing failed at ev­ery­thing else.

She ar­rives full of nerves and feel­ing like a fraud. At the com­mu­nal din­ner on her first night, Char­lie ap­pears with his six-foot-long iguana under his arm (even though pets are not al­lowed). A well-known artist who is part of the ‘Bono set’, he has spent some years in Amer­ica and even worked with Bob Dy­lan. He’s an ex­otic crea­ture (like his iguana) who she finds fas­ci­nat­ing de­spite the 20-year age gap be­tween them.

He brings her on long walks around the lake dur­ing which the in­ten­sity of his vi­sion en­thrals her. He quotes Shel­ley and Keats, teaches her about art and, although he’s a vis­ual artist, even ed­its what she is writ­ing. “Un­likely men­tor and mis­guided muse — this was how Char­lie and I be­gan,” she writes.

Af­ter their idyll, it’s back to re­al­ity in Dublin where they are both at the end of re­la­tion­ships (Char­lie

Back in Bray, his de­cline con­tin­ues apace, he is hos­pi­talised for a time, he stops paint­ing and finds life ever more con­fus­ing. He at­tacks the ATM when it won’t give him money, tries to put his seat­belt buckle into the CD slot and, more se­ri­ously, tries to wash his daugh­ter in scald­ing wa­ter. And that’s only a glimpse of what goes wrong.

Ju­lia does her best to con­tinue life as nor­mal, but the strain is de­stroy­ing her and af­fect­ing their daugh­ter. Char­lie has now been di­ag­nosed with Alzheimer’s and a so­cial worker strongly ad­vises her to put him in care be­fore she cracks up.

But she can’t do it, even though she feels trapped. The solution is to put him in an apart­ment, while she goes to live nearby with her sis­ter. She vis­its him twice a day and Char­lie’s ex-wife Mariad and grown-up daugh­ter Domino also be­come part of the group who look af­ter him. The fi­nal sec­tion of the book is har­row­ing, with Char­lie threat­en­ing sui­cide as he de­spairs at what is hap­pen­ing to him.

What makes this book so ex­cep­tional is that it is full of warmth and hu­man­ity, de­spite the tragedy that un­folds. It is also com­pletely can­did. Ev­ery page is full of em­pa­thy but to­tally hon­est, of­ten at Ju­lia’s own ex­pense.

Writ­ing such a book re­quires ruth­less­ness. It could be seen as a form of self-de­fence — she, af­ter all, left him, de­spite pro­vid­ing con­tin­u­ing sup­port. It could also be seen as a be­trayal of Char­lie, although she did read early sec­tions to him and he wanted her to con­tinue. As an artist he would have un­der­stood that ruth­less can­dour was es­sen­tial.

Ju­lia has that ruth­less­ness — but she also writes beau­ti­fully and with great hu­man­ity.

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