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Posts Tagged ‘four letters of love’

flolI can’t believe it’s twenty years since this book came out. I was in the Lake District on a walking holiday. A bill for car repairs the week before had left me a bit short and I calculated that after food and petrol I’d have about a tenner to spare. I spent £5.99 of it on this book for company in the evenings. It took me close to the wire, but it was money well spent. I don’t remember any of the walking now, I just remember reading this book in the B+B.

One part is set in a rural suburb of Dublin and describes the relationship between young Nicholas and his father, a man who gives up a steady but uninspiring career in the civil service in order to paint. He believes God has called him to do it, but it’s a calling that also plunges his family into poverty. Then we have Isabelle, growing up on a small island off Ireland’s west coast, her childhood overshadowed by an incident in which her musically gifted brother was struck down by a life-changing seizure, and for which she nurses a deep, though irrational, wound of guilt. She’s a bright girl but flounders when away at boarding school in Galway, squanders her chances of university and settles instead with a cloth merchant, Peader. By turns passionate and cold, tender and violent, Peader is not a good match, but Isabelle goes along with it, thinking of it as her punishment for past sins.

For most of the story Nicholas and Isabelle live entirely separate lives, and it seems impossible they’ll ever meet. But we know they must because in the opening of the book we are told, somewhat enigmatically, Nicholas was born to love Isabelle. It’s a mystery why or how, but all that’s just what’s on the surface, the bare bones, if you like, and it’s a tiny fraction of what this novel is about. The author’s characters are drawn from humble lives, the kind of people you wouldn’t second glance on a bus, yet through their struggles they take on such noble and god-like proportions it’s hard to see the world in quite the same way again.

We have Nicholas’s father, on the edge of madness, gaunt, white haired, messianic, striding into the west in broken old boots with his paints and his easel while his family starves back home. Ordinarily we’d dismiss him as a selfish old fool, but through Nicholas’s eyes, though at times he hates his father for what he’s done, his overriding love for him elevates their story to the rank of an Homeric Odyssey. And Isabelle’s father, a small-island schoolmaster, sometime poet, and semi-drunk, raising his pupils with kindness and compassion, and a dedication such that they will not be looked down upon by their mainland peers – another small life, but for all of its obscurity it is also heroically huge and inspirational.

Religion runs strongly throughout the book, God being ever present in the workings of fate, in the lives of the characters and the events that touch them. The characters wait on signs that will tell them what to do, they interpret them as best they can, and they have visions, see ghosts via the medium of dreams or delirium – all of this in the sense of a folk religion that’s been overlaid with a tradition of Catholicism. You can read the universe and your life as a meaningless, or you can see it as something more, something epic in which fate and love are bound together, a visionary experience of life in which we are invited to take our part. The choice is ours. The latter adds colour and meaning to our days on earth, and makes a kind of mysterious sense of things, if only in retrospect, while the former adds nothing.

There is only one priest in the story, and he shuns the idea of miracles, is afraid of them, would rather the Bishop had the pleasure of them, and when the miracles start to happen, the protagonists literally shut him out. It’s more that God is in every stone of Ireland, in the breath of the wind, in the mist over mountain and bog, a God that is immediate and personal. It’s a book that stirs the spirit and ravishes the senses. It is not a romance, but it is deeply Romantic, and the language is lyrical, pellucid, utterly mesmerising. This is one of the most powerful and compelling works of fiction I have read, and I have re-read it several times now, always something fresh leaping out – a passing observation, a few lines of description triggering an avalanche of revelation.

The moment when the author reveals how Isabelle and Nicholas are finally going to meet will take your breath away and it’ll have you laughing as much out of relief as anything else. But this is not your usual “will they won’t they” kind of story, the kind to be forgotten as soon as the last page is turned. The ending is subtle, powerful and, like the rest of the book, rich with meaning, and it leaves you wondering.

It’s a story you’ll be carrying around in your head for a long, long time.

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