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

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

    They fled war in Syria...

    ...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
    From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

    Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

    Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
    Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

    Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

    Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
    From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

    Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

    From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
    Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

    Kelis interview

    The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea