The dead centre of Ireland, where druids and dark emotions linger

Christian House meets film-maker and novelist Neil Jordan and finds out why he's so haunted by the past
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The Independent Culture

'They're pretty doomed aren't they? Maybe they're a bit too doomed," laughs Neil Jordan, pondering the characters in his new novel, Shade. We meet to discuss his brooding Irish ghost story in the breakfast room of his Covent Garden hotel. And it's soon apparent that Jordan is, in the words of his publicist, "on good form". Decked out in a clover-green beach shirt the stocky, fiftysomething looks more like a touring veteran scrum-half than one of the foremost film directors working in Britain. Belying his reputation as a prickly customer he is attentive, though wistful, from the outset.

Although Jordan had penned two novels before helming his first movie, he's the first to admit that he's seen as a film-maker rather than a writer. This hasn't been helped by the 10-year hiatus since his last book. So why now? "I was actually asked to be on the committee to judge which of the current crop of Irish novelists would most likely be around in 20 years' time. And I was like... I used to write novels you know... and they used to be in print! So I'm not even in the running now? I did get a bit of a fright."

Shade is set around a Manderley-style house on the Boyne estuary. Nina, the estate-owner's daughter, her half-brother Gregory, and local siblings George and Janie, form a love square that folds in on itself like emotional origami. It opens in 1950 with Nina, now a 50-year old famous actress, being decapitated by George. He dumps her body in the septic tank and while stuck in this foul purgatory her ghost lingers. In what is more of a whydunnit than whodunnit, Nina's post-mortem observations are juxtaposed with the story of their adolescence.

As Nina's past comes into focus, so does an eerily familiar presence. "The act of looking back on herself was like an act of haunting in a way," says Jordan. "I found totally intriguing the idea that as a child she had seen this ghost and didn't know who it was, so only on her death does she discover that it was herself." The practicalities of spectral existence are amusingly detailed: she can't tip over vases or create a gust of wind. "She's not like that Noël Coward character in Blithe Spirit," he snorts into his tea. "She can't do that stuff."

He claims that in whatever medium he adopts he tries to play with the "certain verities" expected from an audience. "There have always been demands on cinema; exactly the same things have been demanded on literature." This, after all, is the writer who turned a shock crotch shot into cinematic gold with his Oscar-winning screenplay for The Crying Game. The same seam of fatal misapprehension runs through Shade. "You know, the only recognisable strain in Irish fiction is the mad gothic," says Jordan. "They haven't a tradition in Ireland of Jane Austen's novel of manners and society."

The book is never more cinematic than in its evocation of a terrain. "The river was a character," he asserts. "Estuaries are repositories of remains, aren't they? There are shells buried beneath shells. Bodies can often be found in places like that. And it's the druidic centre of the country." It's also a lost landscape. "Well, if you go there now you won't see it," says Jordan, referring to the development of the area since his mother was born there over 80 years ago. "By setting it from 1900 to 1950 the whole book became a re-imaging of a place that no longer exists."

The First World War takes the boys to Gallipoli, while the escapism offered by the silent silver screen pulls Nina to London. The burgeoning studio system run within "cathedrals of light" is particularly well captured. "It makes perfect sense, they needed light so they'd knock down entire walls and put up glass. It became a mini-Hollywood," Jordan enthuses. "It's an amazing truth that all the studios, in a strange way, have remained in the same places. Film is a bit like prostitution."

Even with geographical and professional diversions each character remains anchored to those formative years on the folklore-steeped mudflats of the Boyne. "I don't think anyone escapes their background. I think the older they get the more they return to it. I do." There is more than a hint of melancholy to Jordan's resolve. "I don't think people hate leaving childhood, they hate being adults, the isolation of it and the burden of it. It's not a state to choose. But this is a gothic novel," he says, his smile reappearing, "where people do not escape their past. There's always a secret that dominates their lives that's bound to be discovered." Doomed indeed.

'Shade' by Neil Jordan is published by John Murray (£16.99)