Adam Gould, By Julia O’Faolain

Madness stirs in this Parisian plot
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Adam Gould is a young Irishman and attendant to an inmate of an asylum at Passy, on the outskirts of Paris. The year is 1892. The director is the distinguished Dr Emile Blanche. Adam's principal charge is Monseigneur de Belcastel, a Catholic prelate involved in a monarchist plot against the Third Republic, who has got himself incarcerated to save his life while retaining his wits. Another of Dr Blanche's patients is Guy de Maupassant, who is in the final, dramatic stages of his dementia.

Into her meticulously observed historical setting, Julia O'Faolain deftly inserts a fictional plot. Other plots abound, on the edges of the narrative action. Gradually, Adam's colourful Irish background emerges: he's the illegitimate son of an impoverished and flamboyant landowner; Catholic-educated, with bog-Irish relations on his mum's side, he has a helpless impulse to do the right thing by everyone.

This is a wide-ranging work. Adam's Mayo shenanigans and melancholy forms of exploitation are matched by off-stage goings-on in the Congo, where mercenaries and missionaries are not averse to tapping native resources, with savageries inflicted and endured. But the urban centre of the novel is Paris, where secularising forces are at odds with Catholic conservatism, and secrecy and conspiracy are thriving expedients.

Adam, if not entirely an innocent abroad, has a good deal to learn about political and social complexities. His sentimental education is not neglected either. He embarks with gusto on an adulterous affair which can only intensify the confusions unfolding around him.

There are some nicely judged moments of farce, as when a visiting vicomte tries to climb over the asylum gate and gets stuck; the unfortunate nobleman is hit by a billiard ball thrown by a lunatic. Add the "misfit" theme that runs through the book as place and displacement come to the fore, and the utterances of the mad de Maupassant that colour all off the imbroglios, and you get a highly original work of fiction, urbane, elegant and full of esprit.