Molly Fox's Birthday, By Deirdre Madden

A novel of friendship and identity with an Irish accent

Deirdre Madden's fiction is getting better and better. This seventh novel is, like its predecessor, Authenticity, shaped around an art form. With Authenticity, it was painting; this time it's acting. Molly Fox's profession is central to the theme of identity. The novel's three main characters are at odds with their background and upbringing, and each has managed to forge a more appropriate identity.

Two are Northern Irish, while Molly is a native of Dublin. The one most at ease with her family and childhood is the unnamed narrator, who (like the author) grew up as a Catholic in a rural part of the North, in a large and congenial family. She has, however, removed herself from its influence, first by studying at Trinity College in Dublin, then by making a name for herself as a playwright in London.

In the course of a midsummer's day, the playwright goes about her everyday activities in her friend Molly's house in Dublin, borrowed while the actor is working in New York. She meditates on their friendship, and on how an earlier friendship with a student at Trinity, Andrew Forde, has expanded to accommodate the three of them. Andrew is, in a sense, the narrator's opposite: a working-class Belfast Protestant whose paramilitary brother has been murdered in a loyalist feud. Andrew is not exactly the cuckoo, but the flamingo in the east Belfast nest. His glittering career as an art historian and TV presenter testifies to the strongest drive towards self-amendment, a whole new style of being.

Molly Fox's birthday – 21 June – coincides with a traumatic incident in her past. Her role is to facilitate an examination of the actor's role, and the role of acting in everyday life. A couple of emblems point up the theme: the fibreglass cow Molly keeps in her garden, either endearingly quirky or appallingly tasteless. The other is an image that haunts the narrator, and that she hopes will enable her to overcome writer's block: a man with a hare in his arms, glimpsed on a train in Munich. Is the hare a pet, or destined for the table? Is its stillness due to fright, or trust? These questions can only be resolved in the playwright's imagination.

What is striking about Molly Fox's Birthday is the faintly ironic decorum of its telling, its almost Aesop-like animal symbolism, and the scope of its implications. Deirdre Madden has written a novel of great astuteness and felicity.

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