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.