Brilliant debut heralds arrival of a new talent
This is the first novel by Belfast-born actress Michele Forbes and it arrives garlanded with praise from formidable literary admirers.
Roddy Doyle deemed it "clever, unpredictable and beautifully written"; Anne Enright thinking its main character "a heroine to treasure"; and an impressed John Banville promising that "we shall be hearing a great deal more" from the book's author.
Certainly Forbes, who has already won major awards for her short stories, knows how to write – her prose is unfailingly elegant and her images are often arresting without being in any way show-offy, as in her description of nine-year-old Elsa, "a child starved of sunlight, her creamy skin melting into the gold of her hair" and her facial features "as gently placed as butter into warm milk".
The story itself is slender and seemingly prosaic, but that's to the point, Banville rightly describing Forbes as someone "who is not afraid to address the so-called ordinary lives of real human beings".
The ordinary person here is Katherine Fallon, whom we first meet at a Co Antrim seaside resort with her husband and four children and then encounter, in alternate chapters, when she's a young, single woman in Belfast 20 years earlier.
The later time is August 1969 but so staid is the Belfast evoked in the early chapters that it might as well be the city of 1949 in which Katherine, who's newly engaged to the solid George, falls in love with ardent young tailor Tom, the designer of the dress she will wear as Carmen in a local amateur production of the Bizet opera.
The scene is set for quiet tragedy, which duly occurs, though the author, switching between the two time zones, defers some of the details, so that we're left wondering for quite some time how Katherine ended up with George, whether he knew about Tom or what accommodations were reached that enabled their marriage to endure.
As the book proceeds, it darkens, the author vividly evoking the divisions and bitterness that erupt with the onset of the Troubles, yet though voluntary fireman George is actively involved in fighting the devastation, the political turmoil seems quite incidental to another, more intimate tragedy that befalls the family – at which point the narrative focus shifts from Katherine to young daughter Elsa, whose point of view carries the book to its conclusion.
This late-stage narrative transition, which seems to be aiming at some kind of emotional and spiritual transcendence, is somewhat uneasily done, but by now we've become so engrossed in the lives of Katherine and her family that we're prepared to forgive this odd deviation from what's gone before.
And overall, certainly, the book confirms its author as an exceptional talent.