BOOK REVIEW / Through a child's eyes: 'At Weddings and Wakes' - Alice McDermott: Hamish Hamilton, 14.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
NEW YORK in the Fifties is the setting for Alice McDermott's fine new novel, which unravels the complex, troubled lives of an Irish Catholic family. Twice a week during their summer vacation, three young children (two sisters and a brother) are taken by their mother from their home in Long Island to visit her stepmother and three unmarried sisters, still sharing the claustrophobic Brooklyn apartment where their parents died, and where the stepmother, 'Momma', raised the family almost singlehandedly and is reluctant to let them forget it.

This haunted world of adult disappointment is only half-understood by the children, who see the displays of affection and banter masking a subtext of bitterness and regret. Their mother, unhappy in her marriage, and their aunts - Veronica who drinks, Agnes who hides behind the trappings of urban sophistication, and May, a cheerful ex-nun who unexpectedly finds late love with a local mailman - are all anchored in the past by Momma's matriarchal fervour. The burden of their debt to her weighs heavily, making them resentful yet afraid to let go.

Even at Christmas, 'the women seemed to pull the old grievances from kitchen drawers and rattling china cabinets, testing them, it seemed, against the day's peace and proving in this final hour that it had been a temporary and paltry and unreliable peace'. Not until May's wedding does the atmosphere lift, for a short time, only to plunge them soon afterwards into further tragedy and remorse.

The lengthy wedding sequence towards the end of the book is finely tuned. It is the children's first wedding, and through their starry-eyed perceptions we meet their older, cynical cousins and a galaxy of friends and well-wishers, and watch the choreography of the occasion, where the pieces of lives we have previously encountered finally slot into place. It is as if we have been granted full membership of this exclusive, rackety club.

Ordinary lives become extraordinary here, transformed by Alice McDermott's lyrical prose. Like the long takes in Terence Davies's film The Long Day Closes, the descriptive intimacy of her interiors and set-pieces leaves indelible images. Such clarity finds its level in the freshness of her childhood perspectives, undimmed by the adult wisdom of hindsight.

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