Books: Concrete and cakes in Cavan

THE BEND FOR HOME: A Memoir by Dermot Healy, Picador pounds 16
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The Independent Culture
"What happened is a wonder, though memory is always incomplete." Dermot Healy has already published highly praised fiction, poetry and drama, but this memoir of family life in Westmeath and Cavan is truly wonderful. It hops and jumps through childhood and adolescence to the deaths of his father and mother, mixing the surreal with solid concrete, weaving humour with a sustained sense of loss. And always, whether recounting his parents' honeymoon, when a madwoman leeches on to them, or the birth of a neighbour's child, the writer is somehow present, observing, empathising, adding a new spin to the most humdrum events.

As he admits, the best material for his fiction and drama comes from his family: quick-witted mother Winnie, whose "stories were told so often that I always thought I was there"; his aged father forced by illness to retire from the Gardai of a small Westmeath village to a sister-in- law's cafe in the centre of Cavan town; and the powerful Aunt Maisie, whose early disappointment in love has left an uncertain character veering from dreamy to cynical, as when, taking an order for a wedding cake, she barks, "The rutting season has started again!"

Though the child's eyes, the Breifni Cafe has a nightmarish quality. His arrival from the village of Finea into an inferno of cake-making and customers is a shock from which he never quite recovers. Unfamiliar noises (including the systematic beating of children next door) haunt his sleep. Memories of a happier place induce a bout of sleepwalking. And his dream of returning to Westmeath is dashed on a trudge into the countryside as the road he believes will lead to their old home brings him back into the streets of Cavan.

His childhood landscape is gone. Family meals are eaten before a wall- mirror, all conversation directed at their reflections: "Always there were two of you there: the one in whom consciousness rested, and the other, the body, which somehow couldn't belong and was always at a certain remove ... This distance between my mind and my body has always remained ..."

The self-analysis is interesting. On the negative side, it explains the writer's tendency to swerve from moments of real intensity into bluster or joke. More positively, it describes him as showman. And that ability to keep moving, spinning any number of balls in the air, comes into its own here. Place and time spool effortlessly forward and back through experiences of first love and LSD, pub-crawling round Cavan, puberty spent with pictures of suckling breasts in a medical book, a 42-pound pike, shot as it chased a shooting party off the lake, and the French scandal of Great Aunt Jane who returned to the Free State to open the Breifni. Each page spills over with wonder. The borders of fact and fiction are often blurred, but many images recur in Healy's work: "All I've ever written about is a bridge, a man in uniform, a woman who takes the reins of a business."

Gradually, innocent surprise matures into irony. The death of his father on Christmas Eve, 1962, comes as a second shock. The 15-year-old is at a dance when it happens because, as with the move from Finea, his people had not warned him: "We didn't want to upset you." Young Healy goes off the rails, mitching school, drinking excessively and breaking girls' hearts in the local convent. The style of memory changes too. Free-wheeling storytelling is replaced by a teenage diary, the cryptic text and the author's brisk explanations displaying his new sense of distance. Winnie preserves the diary for her son, and as the middle-aged man deciphers those angry years, chips in with her own version of events. She and Maisie are growing infirm, but their delight in storytelling and Maisie's bitter wit are still going strong.

Gradually, the focus shifts from the son to his mother. A kind of forgiveness develops as they struggle to unravel the past and cope with Winnie's deterioration. By the time she dies, their conversations have cast doubt on Healy's incomplete memory; proof perhaps that those random shafts of truth are genuinely stranger than fiction.