BOOK REVIEW / Quietly mad with the moody blues: 'Nothing is Black' - Deirdre Madden: Faber, 12.99 pounds

DEIRDRE MADDEN's title comes from Frida Kahlo's notes on colour, a catalogue of definititons - such as 'Yellow: madness, sickness, fear. Part of the sun and joy.' Kahlo believed that 'nothing is black, really nothing.'

This suggests just the right spirit in which to approach Madden's portrait of a lady artist, living in the mists of Donegal, who has a consuming interest in colour. As a child Claire would torment her father with questions like, 'What colour is ice?' or, 'Daddy, do you think white is as frightening as black? I do.' Claire is also well-versed on the subject of how we react to the size of things - in life and art - but on colour she is encyclopedic.

Into Claire's arty solitude comes a cousin from Dublin, on the verge of a breakdown, with whom Claire has nothing in common. In quick succession cousin Nuala has, a) lost her mother, b) given birth to a daughter and c) slipped off her trolley. She has taken to nicking unneeded cutlery and hideous ashtrays from hotel restaurants. One day she miscalculates both the dexterity required to handbag a tea pot and the amount of tea left in it:'Picking damp tea leaves out of her hairbrush, she knew that she had come to the end of something.' Nuala's husband, Kevin, with whom she runs a fashionable Dublin restaurant, contacts the bemused Claire who, in a mood of grim determination, provides her cousin with a haven .

Madden is highly convincing at demonstrating that people routinely flip out. If we knew quite how mad some of our best friends are at any given time, she suggests, we might panic. Nuala lost her mother so she pockets spoons. Claire has a Dutch neighbour who lost her daughter's affection because she refused to take back her two- timing husband, so she is punishing herself in self-imposed Irish exile.

Claire is a subtler oddball. She seems on the surface a very cold fish, yet she instinctivley gives Nuala the permission she seeks to feel temporarily lost. 'Most people have a crisis in their lives at one time or another,' says Claire, 'You might as well have yours now. . . It's hard to belive at the time but it will come to an end.'

One nagging question hangs over these proceedings. What is happening with Nuala's baby daughter all this time? Even when husband Kevin is summoned to Donegal because Nuala has gone AWOL from Claire's one night, there is not even passing mention of this child. The undoting parents toy with the idea of a Venice holiday in the Autumn (visions of toddlers toddling into the Grand Canal), and this after Nuala has already swanned off to spend the summer in the country, incidentally taking her daughter's cloth bunny as a souvenir. This seems a bit hard on the now motherless - and rabbitless - little girl.

Madden's prose is at once economical and lyrical. She sketches character in crisp, telling strokes. This is not the sort of narrative that is noisy enough to compete with an urban din. It is a book best contemplated in stillness, allowing its clarity and strangenes to ring through. As Claire was able to conclude: 'Sometimes it was easy to forget that life was driven by necessity. . . What was worth knowing in life? The limits, the severe limits of one's understanding and abilities, the power of love and forgiveness, and that life was nothing if not mysterious.'

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