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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.