BOOK REVIEW / Over the edge of the world: 'Clare' - John MacKenna: The Blackstaff Press pounds 6.95
Saturday 01 January 1994
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.
TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success
tvU2’s latest record has been accused of promoting sex between men
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Which country would be hardest to invade?
- 2 The man who filmed the Freddie Gray video has been arrested at gunpoint
- 3 Floyd Mayweather vs Manny Pacquiao live: Mayweather puts on defensive masterclass to win by unanimous decision
- 4 Floyd Mayweather's mouthguard costs $25,000 - enough to fly to Las Vegas and back 18 times
- 5 Royal baby girl born: Duchess of Cambridge's second child will be a princess thanks to Queen
Daredevil, Netflix, TV review: Marvel wins first fight in bid for television domination with Charlie Cox's superhero vigilante
Grace Dent on TV: Peter Kay's Car Share made me genuinely LOL
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
London Marathon: Best running songs from Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar to 'Uptown Funk'
The highly NSFW poster for Gaspar Noé's Love makes Nymphomaniac look like 50 Shades
Over 50,000 families shipped out of London boroughs in the past three years due to welfare cuts and soaring rents
EU asylum policy is 'a direct threat to our civilisation', says Nigel Farage
Indonesia executions live: 'Hysterical' families heard prisoners being shot dead by firing squad
General Election 2015: SNP and its activists 'openly racist' towards the English, Farage says
EU exit would hit UK economy much harder than neighbouring countries, study finds
General Election 2015: UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power, Labour warns