Reds, beds and borders

UNHOLY GHOSTS by Ita Daly, Bloomsbury pounds 14.99

A FALSE division is often made between professional writers, who tend to assert that the deluded amateurs who wish to write novels are really in need of therapy instead, and the amateurs, who are often honest enough to acknowledge that loss or confusion may trigger the desire to write. In fact those who end up as professional writers may well have been initially inspired by unconscious upheavals to investigate the human need to create pattern and story. The professional is simply the writer who survives, improves, keeps going, and does not give up. Talent (or obsession, or desire, call it what you will) there must be, and a fierce love of language, but the writer who succeeds also needs ruthlessness and selfishness just to carve out the time to write in. This is what marks out the would-be professional. Not the lack of neurosis as such.

This old separation between the healthy and the sick, the professional and the amateur, is at the heart of Ita Daly's interesting new novel, which explores the psychic costs involved in trying to pass as normal in a culture of emotional repression and dishonesty. Catholicism, in other words. The narrator, Belle Myers, works as a gardener in the grounds of a large mental hospital outside Dublin. The novel itself is what emerges from her scribbles in an exercise book during off-duty hours.

Belle was briefly an inmate at the hospital, released into gardening as therapeutic labour, once her talent for it was discovered by the dynamic new director, Anto. It's Anto who insists that Belle must write down the memories that are beginning to surface. He makes it sound easy: "It's great that it's all coming up. You've suppressed all this for years and you didn't want analysis and I agree with you there but now it's come to the surface of its own accord. Nothing wrong with that, it's healthy

Belle is jolted into attempting this autobiography by a threat to her job. The government has decided to close the hospital and sell the valuable land on which the gardens stand. Anto is off to save orphans in Romania. Belle begins to investigate her past in order to confront the future.

This post-Freudian pattern of story, a kind of thriller, in which the heroine tracks down the trauma deep in the past which turned her into a psychiatric patient, is certainly a common one in modern writing. Ita Daly refreshes the genre by giving us a tale of growing up that's passionately concerned with war, socialist politics, and Jewish identity. Slowly, Belle releases the details of her arrival as a child in Ireland, fleeing from Germany with her mother and grandmother, and the frantic attempts of these two women to deny the past in order to fit into Catholic suburbia. Belle, as a questioning adolescent, is inspired by her fiery history teacher, Mona, to become involved in revolutionary politics and a daring, tormented love affair with Max, a Jewish comrade. Revelations about Belle's true identity come in the final twists of the plot.

There are lots of good things in this book. The split between the ardent young woman and the aggressive ex-inmate she becomes is impressive; the comforting but claustrophobic domestic world of the three refugees is powerfully sketched. The relationships between grandmother, mother and daughter carry the impact of emotional truth. There is a satisfyingly nasty villain in Father Jack, a creepy priest who befriends the family. Believers in balance as essential to character-drawing will find him too mean and evil, but anyone from a 1950s' Catholic background will shudder with recognition. Other archetypes, of heroism this time, are discernible in Mona, who goes off to fight in Hungary, and in Belle herself, a moving portrait of youthful idealism. The interior of a lunatic asylum, resounding with screams of distress, makes a sombre background as well as serving to remind us of the punishments meted out to social and sexual rebels.

Interesting as it is to read about the cloak and dagger atmosphere of far left and communist politics that Belle gets mixed up in, the passion and the paranoia, some of these scenes are repetitive and overlong. Perhaps Belle, a skilled gardener, needs to prune her writing too. Her language, most of the time, is disappointingly flat. To be realistic, a narrative doesn't have to reproduce oral speech at its most ordinary. For a novel concerned with the turbulence of sex and politics and the unconscious, this one reins itself in a little too much. Yet when Belle does allow herself an image or a flash of humour, her prose bursts into flower.

Arts and Entertainment

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade

radio
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?