Ceasefire at home

ONE BY ONE IN THE DARKNESS by Deirdre Madden, Faber pounds 14.99

This ambitious and wide-ranging novel explores the difficulties and uncertainties faced by three women as they reach their mid-thirties. The eldest of the Quinn sisters, Helen, is a solicitor in Belfast handling tough criminal and terrorist cases; Cate is a beautiful, poised and successful fashion journalist living in London; Sally, the youngest, has stayed at home, a teacher in the local school all the girls once attended. In this skilfully constructed novel, episodes from the sisters' childhood in an affectionate farming family in Northern Ireland in the 1960s - into which the Troubles erupt with bewildering violence - are spliced between chapters concerning the complexities of their adult lives during the course of one week, just before the start of the IRA ceasefire in 1994.

The book begins with the homecoming of Cate, the sister who has strayed furthest from the family both geographically and socially, adopting a fashionable, hectic life in London as an escape from the parochialism of Northern Ireland. Pregnant and abandoned by her lover, she seeks the reassurance and certainty associated with her childhood. But the home she returns to is itself deeply troubled, following the brutal murder two years earlier of Cate's father by Loyalist paramilitaries who'd mistaken him for his brother, an active Republican.

Deirdre Madden could hardly have published One by One in the Darkness at a better time, with every news bulletin filled with details of the wrangling about political developments in Northern Ireland, often in rhetoric which seems designed to obscure the lived experience behind the sloganeering. The significance of much of the writing that has emerged from Northern Ireland over the last 30 years is the way in which, at its best, it can ground subjective, "ordinary" experiences within an understanding of historical events, restoring richness to etiolated debates.

Anyone wondering why the Nationalist community might view British intentions with suspicion would do well to read Madden's chapters recording the arrival of British troops in the province. One Saturday lunchtime two soldiers take up position in the front room to interrogate the family, demanding personal details of the adults and the three young girls, right down to the name of their dog. Deirdre Madden integrates these disturbing scenes into the everyday concerns of childhood, demonstrating how political upheavals are lived out in ordinary lives.

She is particularly good at the way in which the past constructs the present, how intense memories transfigure current experience: "Standing in the silent luxury of her own wardrobe, Cate remembered with uncanny vividness her grandmother's room: the crocheted bedspread, the rain on the window, a scent of violets and dust."

Compared with the rich inventiveness of the earlier scenes, the 1994 passages sometimes feel flat and predictable. Of the sisters, Cate is the most complex and fully realised, whereas Helen's cold detachment seems forced, and Sally's passive attachment to the family home is merely sketched in. It's as though, having decided on the magic number of three sisters, Madden has handed them the equivalent characteristics of the three caskets, a schematic division which sits oddly in a novel which elsewhere strives for the authenticity of a quiet and effective psychological realism.

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