The theatre of life

2008-10-22 00:00

I groaned as I started this book for it reminded me of the set works I had to read in literature classes at school and university. Not one of those “easy reads”, it is the kind of work that requires concentrated attention.

It is not surprising that it reminded me of set works, for Madden is a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, where she now teaches. She is seen as one of Ireland’s foremost writers and has won several literary awards. She likes to explore thought-provoking themes such as individual identity and its relationship to institutions and issues like religion, politics, art and gender.

Like many of her other works, this book relies heavily on conversation and reminiscence. A biographer, Rosemary Johnsen, wrote that Madden uses “in-depth conversations to advance characters’ understanding of themselves and each other while developing her themes for the reader”. The conversations in this book are largely between the anonymous narrator — a playwright — and her friends, the elusive Molly — an actor — and the Belfast-born TV art-historian, Andrew. Despite being physically absent, Molly is a constant presence. Questions about her dominate, like why she will not let people know her or celebrate her birthday. Supporting roles are played by Molly’s depressive, alcoholic brother, Fergus, and the narrator’s brother Tom, a Catholic priest.

I use the word “roles” deliberately as the book explores not only friendship and family, but also the theatre, performance and pretence, mostly in relation to Molly. She is most “herself” during her theatre performances and even her home seems like a stage set, where she performs the script of her life. The novel unfolds in her home, where the narrator is staying, in the course of one midsummer’s day, Molly’s birthday.

A “serious reader’s” book, this is a dense, beautifully written novel that is worth the effort.

Julia Denny-Dimitriou

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