BOOK REVIEW / Over the edge of the world: 'Clare' - John MacKenna: The Blackstaff Press pounds 6.95

IN 'The Honest Ulsterman' 25 years ago I read Michael Longley's 'Journey Out Of Essex', in which John Clare described his flight from an asylum:

I am lying with my head

Over the edge of the world,

Unpicking my whereabouts

. . . putting to bed

In this rheumatic ditch

The boughs of my harvest-home,

My wives, one on either side,

And keeping my head low as

A lark's nest, my feet toward

Helpston and the pole star.

We can sense the dilemma and small despairs of a man seeking refuge in an ordered private geometry, homeless yet homing in on a vision of his loves, of his village, of domesticity and nature.

Perhaps it is Clare's rural affiliations and instinct for ritual touching on sacrament that make him appeal to the Irish sensibility. John MacKenna, in a first novel that marks the 200th anniversary of Clare's birth, evinces the same finely tuned empathy as Longley. Clare won the Irish Times award for the best first novel of 1993.

The novel's language echoes the lyrical astuteness, freshness and honesty of Clare's verse. Though it sometimes strains to catch the right note, it coins a language of intimate knowledge and bears forthright witness to the poet's life. The narrative is woven from a quartet of voices - the women who stood or stumbled in Clare's wake, who shared his dooms and aspirations, his flights of longing and frustration. Was the seed of Clare's melancholy planted by the death of his twin sister in infancy? Or by his yearning for Mary Joyce, the never requited love of his youth, or by the burden of expectation imposed by his parents, which lay 'like two crosses across John's shoulders'?

The speaker, Sophy, Clare's younger sister, tells of his early wanderings, how he made mischief and songs before the onset of 'his own slow sadness,' before he embraced marriage, fatherhood and celebrity (though small) - before the final breakdown of his mind and memory. Her tale joins those of Clare's wife Patty (which reveals his turbulence and carnality), of Eliza his favoured daughter (which disclose a tender introspection), and of Lady Kettering, a sponsor who fails to seduce him and then attempts to humiliate him: 'though I harboured then, and still do now, a bitter memory of an earlier time, I never wished him the awful sickness that . . . struck him so terribly.'

Her voice is least convincing; she sounds like a commentary, not a participant in Clare's life. She projects a persona, not a character, contrasting with the beautifully nuanced voices of the Clare family, which bring an actual as well as a literary landscape into focus. The novel concludes with Clare's voice, and here the quietude of madness is evoked with startling clarity: 'in tears I called to you, my beloved, in the terror of the grey morning, and none came but another prisoner in this madhouse and he stroked my head . . .' This is the head that drooped on 'the edge of the world' in Longley's poem. The image shows the hallmark of MacKenna's subtle novel: the potent value of restraint.

Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Arts and Entertainment
U2's Songs of Innocence album sleeve

tvU2’s latest record has been accused of promoting sex between men

Arts and Entertainment
Alison Steadman in Inside No.9
tvReview: Alison Steadman stars in Inside No.9's brilliant series finale Spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk