BOOK REVIEW / A raft of love goes sailing off: A second life - Dermot Bolger: Viking, pounds 15

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The Independent Culture
LOST in a world of perpetual disintegration, Samuel Beckett's Unnameable aspired 'to start again from nowhere, from no one, and from nothing'. After lying clinically dead for a few seconds following a car crash, the narrator of A Second Life, a photographer called Sean Blake, wakes 'from nowhere,' to find himself in a position of comparable existential extremity.

As he is helped into an ambulance, Sean has a vision of his 'lost' father which leaves him bereft and dejected. Recovering slowly in hospital, he is tormented by this vision and also by traumatic memories, suppressed for many years, of a strange and difficult boyhood. Adopted as a baby, Sean never knew his real parents; his mother, Lizzie Sweeney, scarcely knew his father. After getting pregnant as a teenager, Lizzie was shunned by her family and,

after finding refuge in a convent, she was forced to give up her baby for adoption. This, Dermot Bolger reminds us sadly, happened all too often in post-war rural Ireland.

Echoing Bolger's last novel, Emily's Shoes, which also featured a parentless hero, A Second Life is the study of a man in the grip of a terrible obsession. Like a good Freudian, Bolger uses dreams, in which the symbolic but watchful ego is still present, as well as wishes, hesitations and half- recollections to reveal essential truths about Sean. Like Oedipus, Sean cannot really know himself until he has uncovered the truth about his origins and the hidden reality of his past. Yet when he reaches the end of his quest, learning of the absolute sadness of the now dead Lizzie's life in England, he longs to turn away from the world, no longer to cherish it or love it.

Sean's search for his mother is moving, but as a narrator he's constantly irritating. He is simply too self-pitying and self-justifying to engage our sympathy fully. Similarly, the central idea, though compelling and suggestive, is marred by sentimentality and by melodramatic flourishes. This is especially true of the closing chapters when Sean is finally reunited with his wife and two children. Fatigued yet blissfully relieved, they all curl up together in bed and, in an image which is blushingly sugary, the bed becomes their 'raft of love sailing through the night'. This, unfortunately, is typical of Bolger's overall style. Although ostensibly his sentences seem sumptuous, they don't stand up under close inspection. Bolger has published five collections of poetry, and much of the writing here is strained by a desperate poetic striving - precious, fragile and forced.

Easily the strongest aspect of the book is Bolger's evocation of Fifties Ireland as a decadent theocracy in thrall to superstition. And it's in the role of polemicist, railing against the hypocrisies and reactionary propensities of the Irish Catholic Church, that Bolger is at his most impressive.