Books: Ewe are my heart's desire

Carol Birch prefers country by-ways to the streets of Dublin; In the Beginning by Catherine Dunne, Cape, pounds 9.99 One Day as a Tiger by Anne Haverty, Chatto, pounds 9.99

Nothing sums up the schizophrenia of modern life like contemporary Ireland, where urban sophisticates have delighted in puncturing time-honoured shibboleths, while among the boreens and candy-coloured village streets the old ways persist. Two first novels from Irish women, one urban, one rural, aptly illustrate this.

On the strength of Catherine Dunne's novel, In The Beginning, it seems that the old certainties have been jettisoned in favour of a resolute blandness. It tells the story of Rose, perfect housewife and mother of three, whose husband walks out after 20 years of marriage. Rose picks herself up, dusts herself down and discovers beneath her doormat persona such reserves of strength and independence that within a year she has turned tragedy into triumph, scaling heights of self-respect she could never have dreamed of in marriage.

It is a simple, undemanding book with a plucky heroine and a message of hope, rocking no boats and adhering to standard truisms of the British and American feminist novel of 20 or so years ago. Divorce is a liberation for women and, in the long run, is better for children than life with two unhappy parents. Ben, the husband, is no loss, being despicable and boring and prone to make a mess in the kitchen. Women friends are strong and dependable. PMT is a window onto reality that men don't understand.

Catherine Dunne is good on the minutiae of domestic life and the sense of panic faced by women desperately trying to earn a living and keep a family fed and stable, but this is a simplification of the anguish that attends the breakdown of a 20-year relationship, and is unconvincingly reassuring about the effects on children. Still, the woman finds herself, or at least makes a start, and it catches convincingly the brisk modernity and fashionable cynicism of Dublin life.

It is from just this that Marty, hero of Anne Haverty's One Day As A Tiger, flees back to the family farm in Tipperary, relinquishing a promising academic career at Trinity College. Here in the fields of his happy childhood, he falls into the role of layabout younger brother to solid sheep farmer Pierce, a truly good character portrayed without awe or sentiment. Hopelessly and shamefully in love with Pierce's young wife, Etti, Marty also becomes fixated with a lamb called Missy, runt of a herd of sheep experimentally doctored with human genes. Convinced that she has rejected her ovine nature, he takes the pitiful creature into his house and develops a bizarre relationship with her, a projection of his desperate need for love.

This relationship is taken totally seriously by the writer but not by the local community. When Missy becomes the means whereby Etti responds to Marty, the stage is set for a tragedy of classic proportions.

On one level this is a simple story, plainly yet poetically told; on another it's a complex web of humour and pain. It is about the cruelties inflicted on animals by sentimental anthropomorphism, as the beloved lamb becomes whatever is projected onto it. It is also the best observation of modern rural Ireland I have yet to read. Haverty's depiction of "the country way" seeks not to grind an axe, to revere, romanticise or vilify, but simply to behold. Thus, rural life is a possible route to stultification and madness, but it also has beauty and dignity and its roots reach into mythology.

There seems to be a tendency for some Irish women writers to feel that they must consciously make a statement on the subject of "Women in Ireland". Catherine Dunne is in this mode, concerned thereby to point out hypocrisy and emphasise a rot in the traditions. Anne Haverty has a more universal view. She sees the rot but has a clearer view of what's left of the fabric. She cares as much about men as women, the old and the new, and sees the complexity of both. In One Day As A Tiger, she has created a haunting, subtle and beautiful book.

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