Books: Guide me, ovine great redeemer

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ONE DAY AS A TIGER by Anne Haverty, Chatto pounds 9.99

"It is better to have lived one day as a tiger than a thousand years as a sheep." The first time these words were heard in a fashion more broadcast than contemplative was, perhaps, when the young mountaineer Alison Hargreaves died, leaving two young children. Her husband spoke them; and we must trust that they were of comfort to him in his pain. It will never be possible to know what her children thought, though woolly parents have some clear advantages over striped ones, from the child's point of view.

Anne Haverty has written a novel about obsession and obsessive love, tigerish things, set in rural Ireland. There is a saturating intelligent light in the manner of her prose, that saves the almost-schematic subject from sinking into suggestive twilit rhythms. But the risks she takes are considerable.

We are asked to believe that Marty, once an academic at Trinity College, Dublin, and his brother Pierce, a farmer universally liked, love the same woman, Etti, who is married to Pierce and paints her sharp nails white. She is not book-learned, but she has an appeal that we register though the reactions of those around her. Anne Laverty shows herself a natural in the way of shedding direct light sidewise. This will be to do with her other callings, poetry and film-making.

Marty isn't at all nice, but that doesn't matter. Indeed, it's quite a modish advantage. Etti is a cypher, but it is often so with the objects of obsessive love. Pierce, who is given few lines, is solid. This gift of unarticulated but conveyed weight is a tremendous benefit in a novelist. It relieves the writer of overexplanation and the reader of weariness and the obscure sense of being insulted that comes of reading exegetic fiction. Pierce has a way with animals, Marty does not, and herein lies the most daring and best theme of the novel, pretty much impossible to convey without some kind of sheepish facetiousness.

For the catalyst and focus of cold, withdrawn disaffected Marty's thawing into humanity is Missy, a mutant sheep. This plain, wonky, dumb beast is the focus of tenderness, of the Paschal, in the book. The scenes in which the ugly and yet (and so?) curiously human creature shares time with the cold ex-don who has rescued her from the knacker are some of the best in the book, though honours must be shared with the fine, half- lighted, half-lit, drinking scenes in country bars (pubs being far too electronic a word).

The least satisfactory moments in the novel are those when Etti, apparently unaware that it is less than conventional to bolt to France with one's brother-in-law and a smuggled sheep, declares that the only sensible place to be is under the aegis of the great ovine redeemer, Brigitte Bardot. As Agatha Runcible said, "Too sheepish."

Nonetheless, One Day As A Tiger entertains and somehow reassures the reader. I suspect this comes from its understanding of loneliness as a condition of, not only, being alive, but of the feeling of aliveness. In this the book reminded me of two other books by Irish writers. I am aware how batched this sounds, but there are useful echoes of The South by Colm Tibn and The Book of Evidence by John Banville, both featuring tender amoralists. Anne Haverty's work exerts a similar unforced and unavoidable drive to theirs. She also shares that rare thing, a bent for abstraction in a style thoroughly concrete.

"Personal likes and dislikes should not come into one's reactions, as a farmer, to such an important matter as the weather. A farmer approves of weather because it's seasonal, not because it's a thing of cheer or of solace."

One Day as a Tiger is a competent, occasionally transporting, novel. Its chief seriousness consists in its subversion of tigerly glamour by poignant, suffering, if woolly, vulnerability. Who is to say which is nobler? This is not a fashionable theme, being diffuser than the prizefight between good and evil, but it is an honourable one.