Books: Haunted by the demons of Derry

Patricia Craig reads a bleak quasi-fiction about growing up Catholic in 1940s Ulster; Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane Cape, pounds 13.99
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It is hard to tell, with Reading in the Dark, where autobiography ends and fiction begins. The book is about growing up Catholic in Derry in the 1940s and 50s. The narrator (un-named) comes third in a family of seven children, one of whom (Una) dies of meningitis and subsequently appears in front of the narrator, for an instant, "dressed in her usual tartan skirt and jumper her hair tied in ribbons". Ghosts and demons haunt this family. Indeed, the whole locality seems awash in myths and fables which can work in contradictory ways: to impart information, and to keep things tantalisingly obscure.

Part of the author's purpose, however, is to show how myths and misconceptions arise in the everyday world. The young narrator happens to witness a fatal accident, when a boy from a nearby street is run over by a lorry. It's the boy's own fault. A couple of policemen passing are sickened by the sight. Time goes by and the narrator hears a new account of the incident: the victim was mown down by a police car which didn't bother to stop. "Bastards ." He holds his tongue: members of the RUC are not popular in the district. Thus, the garbled version passes into local dogma.

There is, we soon learn, "a burnt space in the heart of the neighbourhood". This, the site of a ruined distillery, is also at the heart of Seamus Deane's plot. Here, in 1922, a shoot-out between the police and the IRA took place. Afterwards one of the IRA men, the narrator's uncle Eddie, is missing. Allusions to the topic are either cagey or cryptic. And somehow connected to it are a family feud involving a farmhouse in Inishowen, a policeman thrown off Craigavon Bridge and drowned, the dumbstruck state of one neighbour and the lunacy of another. There is something eating away at the heart of this family and it interferes, as far as Deane's central character is concerned, with such commonplace diversions as football or going to the cinema.

He is 12 or so when he makes an error of judgement, flinging a stone at a police car and bringing it to a halt, to extricate himself from a sticky situation. Later, it is put about - falsely - that he's blabbed the names of the louts attacking him and a friend. The term "police informer" is bandied about. The narrator, enraged by the injustice of the tag, has to suffer an additional insult: informing runs in the family. But does it? Over this hinted enormity, a question-mark is immediately raised.

Reading in the Dark has a great deal to do with being kept in the dark, and being aware of it - however, the closer the narrator gets to the truth, the more destructive becomes the pressure of his undisclosable knowledge. It ends by estranging him from both his parents, but especially from his mother, as he struggles to get to grips with degrees and varieties of culpability, misfortunes and misbeliefs. Perhaps the family is meant to stand in in some way for Northern Ireland, scuppered by inherited blight. It's a bleak story presented with increasing density; however, the book doesn't lack its moments of lightness. Saint Columb's College, Derry, yields up an instance or two of classroom elan; there is a farcical moment when the school's Spiritual Director tries to impress on a slightly bewildered pupil the need to be high-minded about sex; we even get a glimpse of Deane's most celebrated schoolfellow, his friend Seamus Heaney. Reading in the Dark is consistently felicitous in affect and compelling in atmosphere. But it's not optimistic.

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