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
Just folk: The Unthanks

music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne with his Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actor

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rowan Atkinson is bringing out Mr Bean for Comic Relief

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
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.

    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea