IT'S NOT just that Aisling, Deirdre Madden's Irish narrator, rummages beneath the surface of things, or even views them through the wrong end of a telescope. She sees a single shoe or a belt or a handbag theatrically lit in a shop window drawing an awed crowd to worship at the shrine of the new Italian materialism, and she projects herself into the shoe's future, when it is old and worn-out, or simply unfashionable. In Italy, a country intent on the present, she insistently imposes the long view of history.
This is the consciousness of Ireland's decades of backwardness, the sensibility of the Irish abroad in the new Europe, deeply suspicious of life: 'You can see pictures of the pretty side of Italy . . . while you're still abroad. You'll only ever see such dreariness if you go to the place itself,' Deirdre Madden writes. 'There are places in Tuscany and Umbria and until you've seen them for yourself you wouldn't believe how drab and dreary they can be.'
Aisling moves to San Giorgio, an Umbrian hill village, and finds work as a translator in a clothing factory, one of the workshops of Italy's new renaissance. She lodges with a couple who run a delicatessen, who pity her alone upstairs with her bit of cold meat and no television. Her American boyfriend in Florence, terrified of her old-fashioned clinging to commitment, will leave her one day. Year after year, she penetrates the new Italy of post-war affluence; the Italy that the English middle classes dream of - 'a hot Cotswolds with passion and good grub'. The British may show the extended family tucking in to the communal pasta bowl on BBC 2, but to Aisling's ears everyone eats and laughs without really talking to anyone else. The rich are wretched with their wealth, hating the poverty of the past, their Versace outfits standing in for their souls.
Aisling is not a woman to invite to dinner. Even the Umbrian sun can't make her lighten up. She has left Ireland in an attempt to escape family life, yet Italy only reinforces her Irishness - her prudishness about sex, her thank-you notes, her belief that good things should be saved until Christmas. But in a gradual reconciliation with her home, she speaks for the generation of young Irish trying to find their place in Europe. Ireland, unlike Italy, did not go through the angst of modernism or the Second World War. The 20th century is just beginning there, a decade before the 21st. As its isolation ends, the Irish define their identity not in exile (as Joyce and Beckett did) but in being European at home and abroad.
It is not just the blessing of good subject matter that makes Deirdre Madden one of the best young writers today - in fact she is not even from the Republic, but the north. Her style resembles colloquial speech, yet her sentences are full of flux and dark emotion. Like a magician, she invests mystery in the commonplace; in fact she seems to be one of the most original and disturbing writers since Jean Rhys. Some people make you wary, cast a spell on you, like la belle dame sans merci. This book, and Deirdre Madden, do just that.
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