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A Brave New Ireland
on February 28, 2001
Reading in the Dark might merely have been one more "miserable Irish childhood" story, sandwiched between Angela's Ashes and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, and dismissed. Seamus Deane's unnamed boy author -- nameless, it seems, because his world can't be bothered to notice him -- fits squarely between Frank McCourt and Paddy Clarke in era and in social class. He does not suffer Frank's horrific poverty, nor does he own the books that he reads, as Paddy does. The boy's life in a large working-class Catholic family, with its minimal adult supervision, at least one parent who cannot cope, cruel priests for teachers, and the necessary string of funerals, initially seems to be heading down the literary path to deja-vu.
Seamus Deane, born in Derry, Northern Ireland in 1940, and now a professor at the University of Notre Dame, rescues his first novel from this downward spiral with his ability to transform stereotypical storylines into shattering new tales. Deane masterfully subverts the IRA theme of glory and honour; of fighting and dying for Ireland. He gives us the story of the narrator's Uncle Eddie, introduced as an IRA hero who either escaped from or was killed in a shoot-out with Protestant policemen, but who has not been seen or heard from since.
Deane plays with this contrived, glorious IRA getaway story, tempting the reader to take the anecdote at face value, to romanticize Eddie as a hero. He then inserts a twist -- we learn that Eddie does not have a hero's reputation outside of his family, but is seen as a police informer, a "stooly," by the Catholic community. This reputation stains Eddie's entire family, including the nephew that he never met. The boy is ostracized by his community when, about to be beaten by a gang of boys, he throws a stone at a passing police car in an attempt to escape.
"Once and informer, always an informer," the Protestant policemen sneer.
"F----- stooly," shout his friends.
"Is there something amiss with you?" his father asks.
Deane's layered treatment of conflict is gripping. Hiding beneath each layer -- political, religious, familial, and parent-child -- is a secret, founded partly in myth, partly in history, and considered sacred by the novel's adults. Deane turns the centrality of myth and history in Irish society from a charming tale, as it is most often seen, to a source of great turmoil for a young boy.
The narrator, skeptical of the myths that he is bombarded with, and determined to uncover the truth about his family and world, asks questions in a society in which blind faith is required. This throws him and, to an extent, the reader into conflict with everyone around him. The novel's structure, a series of snapshots of events in the boy's life, puts the reader and the boy on even ground in their quest for the truth. Both are privy to the same limited sources of information, both are told the same stories, and both must piece these tidbits together to make sense of the novel's new Ireland.