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
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
books
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
books
Arts and Entertainment
The man with the golden run: Daniel Craig as James Bond in 'Skyfall'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Waving Seal' by Luke Wilkinson was Highly Commended in the Portraits category

photography
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
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.

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering