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.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
    The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

    The haunting of Shirley Jackson

    Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
    Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

    Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

    These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
    Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen