BOOK REVIEW / In the land of Troubles: A wreath upon the dead - by Briege Duffaud, Poolbeg pounds 14.99

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The Independent Culture
THIS first novel focuses on the twin difficulties of writing and reading about Northern Ireland. Preoccupied with ways of telling and questions of truth, it employs a variety of fictional genres: a sprawling family saga; a Maeve Binchy-like 'woman's novel' following a group of schoolgirls' paths to adult life and loves; a novel about writing a novel; even a postmodernist assemblage of fragments from different discourses tellingly juxtaposed.

Maureen Murphy is determined to stop writing successful romances like Scent of Hibiscus. Instead, from the fastness of her French chateau, she plans to write a major Ulster historical novel based on the tale of Cormac O'Flaherty, 1840s Catholic rebel and murderer of a callous land agent, who married his Protestant landlord's daughter Marianne McLeod. Although herself a South Armagh Catholic, Maureen, feeling 'safe from the past', is certain she can 'tell it from both sides'. But such a project can't be lightly undertaken: it requires research. A Wreath Upon the Dead charts the gradual disillusion of Maureen Murphy and the stillbirth of her great Ulster novel; by the end she is Mayle-ing away at A Decade in Brittany as a safer alternative.

Maureen's need to examine conflicting versions of the past allows Briege Duffaud to invent a range of historical sources for her contemplation. Many of these pastiches are energetic and convincing. Some are not. Entry from Marianne's 1840 journal: 'My father has gone insane] He is completely out of his mind]' Though it is later suggested that this journal may be a turn-of-the-

century fabrication, the diction seems unlikely.

In fact, the unreliability of evidence, the instability of language and the inherent difficulties of testimony haunt both Maureen's excavations and the historic present of the novel itself. Extended monologues by voices from the 1980s strive to be heard above the rustle of questionable documents in which their ancestors' secrets are exposed. Maureen's ruminations on her Ulster novel's progress form a counterpoint as she slowly moves from plans to raid history as colourful background for an epic love story, through recognition of the need for a sober realism, and, ultimately, to a defeated silence. Looking for explanations, she finds 'only a past that grows more glorious and more martyred with every telling'.

This dual sense of the burden of the past and the insubstantiality of narratives about it is deeply felt as the family saga aspect of this novel plays itself out. Sarah, Catholic descendant of Cormac, discovers that Eric, Protestant descendant of Marianne, is her father. She is the unacknowledged consequence of Eric's affair with a Catholic girl he dared not marry through snobbery and fear. Sarah's proximity to IRA activists gives her the means to murder Eric and to blow herself up, too. The murder is misunderstood by witnesses as a political act: the novel depicts it as a Freudian rather than a sectarian killing. Yet the nationalist myth machine is ready to move in and put a wreath upon the dead of this botched episode. Maureen's final silence becomes inevitable.