Fiction - paperback; Faber and Faber; 240 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
I'm not surprised Faber and Faber didn't bother writing a blurb to put on the back of this handsome edition of Deidre Madden's Time Present and Time Past — it would be a tricky task to "market" this extraordinary novel in any meaningful way in just a couple of short press-friendly paragraphs.
Indeed, I'm sure that whatever I say in this review will not do justice to this story, which revolves around the domestic but addresses big themes relating to time and memory and family history. I picked it up expecting to read just a chapter or two, and before I knew it I was two-thirds finished and decided it was just so lovely and enjoyable I had to stay at home to finish the whole thing in one greedy gulp.
A pair of siblings
Set in Dublin during the good times before the economic crash turned the country upside down, it focuses on a pair of 40-something siblings — Fintan Buckley and his younger sister Martina.
Fintan, a congenial, easy-going man, is a legal adviser who is happily married to childhood sweetheart Colette with whom he has has two sons, Robert and Niall, both at university, and a seven-year-old daughter, Lucy.
Martina, a renowned beauty who is headstrong and forthright, runs her own upmarket dress shop after having enjoyed a successful fashion career in London. She returned to Dublin about a decade ago and now lives with her aged aunt.
On the surface, Fintan and Martina lead comfortable middle-class lives, which not even their domineering and opinionated mother can ruin. But scratch a little deeper and there is more going on. For Fintan it is an unknown and untapped desire to reconnect with his childhood past, for Martina it is the need to deal with a traumatic event from her time in London.
Both these threads eventually come together, but in the process Madden interleaves lots of family history — how Fintan and Colette met, for example — to show how the bonds of friendship and family can not only wax and wane over time but form our own personal narratives.
Memory and time
But Time Past and Time Present isn't a straightforward "cosy" domestic story. As the title suggests, it explores notions of time and looks at how memory can shift and change shape with the ticking of the clock.
Part of the novel focuses on Fintan's inner life in which he begins to experience brief moments of altered states of consciousness that take him out of linear time and make him more open to the notion of an "immense pathos in life". In one instance he has an out-of-body experience during a meeting with his personal assistant — and yet no one notices any change in him. Appearances, as they say, can be deceptive.
This theme is further explored by Fintan's emerging interest in early photography and his realisation that he tends to
think of the past as profoundly different to the present, which it was, but not in the ways he expected; so that he had been surprised by Rob's remark of a week ago on a cold day of torrential rain, when Fintan had found him in the hall gloomily sluicing water off his leather jacket and flapping his black umbrella: 'They would have had weather like this during the Famine. Do you ever think about that, Dad? Rain like this and rotten potatoes.'
Not much plot
The most interesting thing about this book is that not much happens in it and yet I found myself getting caught up in the Buckley's lives despite the complete absence of drama — this is definitely not a soap opera.
Perhaps the secret is two-fold: it's all written in the present tense, which creates a sense of immediacy, and by focusing solely on ordinary people it's easy to identify with the characters, all of whom are genuinely likable and well meaning. Indeed, I felt as if I actually knew these characters they seemed so recognisable to people I know and love.
Indeed, Madden has crafted a hugely enjoyable tale about ordinary lives being quietly lead and the importance of family history in shaping who we are and who we want to be. It is understated and unsentimental, yet manages to pack an emotional punch.
Time Past and Time Present has been shortlisted for this year's Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year award, which will be announced on 28 May.