Wet earth and electricity

Sex, lies and the cruelty of convention. Mary Loudon is intoxicated by an operatic tale of rural Ireland; A Stranger in their Midst by Frank Delaney HarperCollins, pounds 9.99
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Dennis Sykes is a complete bastard. He spends his life destroying women with a psychopath's precision. He notices what they wear, sighs gently into their shoulders, and they love him for it. When they love him enough, he abandons them without regret. Dennis's mother has reconstructed her own past, so that her son grows up understanding only the present. Without history, he knows neither loyalty nor morality. He dies successful, superficial, unrepentant and undiscovered.

I'm not spoiling the plot here, by the way: we know most of this on the first few pages of A Stranger In Their Midst. Frank Delaney is not a writer who hangs about; he writes with almighty pace, which makes reading him a bit like being driven very fast around unfamiliar countryside and being torn (but not as torn all that) between the conflicting joys of intoxicating speed and leisurely sightseeing. This doesn't make for an especially reflective experience but it does make for a compelling one.

The plot is complex, but the premise straightforward enough. As electrification is introduced to Deanstown, the rural Ireland of the Fifties, a struggle emerges between faith and duty, progress and change, decency and immorality. In many ways, it is a lament for Ireland's past, with a stab in the back for the blind "visionaries" who fail to understand its umbilical links to the future. And as the Deanstown community shows increasing signs of cracks in its foundations, so Dennis Sykes, the complete bastard, divides the influential Kane family, with charm, with wit, and with sex.

Ergo: lots of nature, lots of cooking, lots of dysfunctional family life and quite a bit of plausible humping, if just a bit too much wet earth and warm baking for my liking. Religion comes in for a bashing, too. There is a quite obscene excommunication service in which a woman marrying a Protestant is officially kicked out of her community, and it is the final action of the Archbishop which causes the greatest destruction of all.

However, the most complex (and unwitting) villain of this well-written and perceptive novel is convention itself. Its politics, constraints and expectations make bullies of men and victims of women, with neither sex coming off well. Men may be bastards, but women, says Delaney, have a "lethal streak of duty" which allows them to be manipulated. Painful, but probably true. Yet for all that, A Stranger in their Midst is essentially romantic and conservative, with its drama often verging on the operatic: as the community lights up in the name of progress, it is plunged into ever deeper moral darkness, and menace looms. Fantastic stuff. I can't help feeling that if Verdi were around today, he and Delaney would make a great team.

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