Books: In Brief

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The Independent Culture
A Goat's Song by Dermot Healey, HarperCollins pounds 14.99.

'Too much white bread,' said Ma Ferris, 'that's what's wrong with Ireland.' Dermot Healey's cleverly made, cyclical novel turns and turns again around what is wrong, as well as much that is right, with Ireland, and as it goes it twirls its hero, Jack Ferris, through the cycle of his parallel obsessions: writing, drink and an actress named Catherine. Jack, it seems, is all- Ireland, the Irish Everyman, benighted with the stereotypical bad-boy image, blessed with the gifts of the gab, the pen and the imagination: Healey, himself a playwright, had accorded his protagonist the same profession, leaving us to guess at the degree of autobiography here.

When Catherine leaves him, Jack in his distress takes himself on a journey of the imagination, into her past - or at least into a past he elaborately conjures up for her. This device allows Healey to roam at will across his subject - Ireland and its history - in a way that is both fascinating and convincing, and manages not to seem contrived, despite its flirtation with melodrama ('Catherine was thirteen the day that Matti hanged himself from a tree midway between the Catholic chapel and the Presbyterian church'). He creates a cast that includes families on both sides of the religious divide (Catherine's father, for instance, a preacher turned RUC man), and a narrative that loops back in time, to the North and its conflicts, and returns finally to a knotty present and partial resolution.

Like its own hero, this novel gives a broad and eloquent display of all the many reasons why we love Irish writing - intensity and passion, vivid characterisation and a bold way with the big themes - and also the other side of that coin - principally, a failure to distinguish a deep evocation of people and place from the merely picturesque, and a fatal weakness for cliches of plot and characterisation, if not of language. But these are tendencies we can indulge, if we choose, submitting ourselves to the undoubted power of the novel's effect.