Finding a new favorite author is a lovely bit of serendipity. Sometimes the prose itself blows me away and, as for example with Cold Mountain, I stop at the end of the first page and tell myself to slow down and savor it. Sometimes, as with Last Orders or Angela's Ashes, I fall in love with the voice. With other books, the plot grips me or the protagonist is someone I want to spend time with. Here all of these elements are done well, but none stands out. It is simply a good story well-told, a rare and remarkable accomplishment. This Irish author has published several novels, and I will be trying to get my hands on every one of them.
Set in Dublin, the story revolves around two artists. Roderic has achieved a good measure of success as a painter but not without personal cost. The one person he hasn't managed to drive away is his older brother, Dennis, a serious and solitary man, who took to heart his mother's words when she first handed him the new baby to hold: “‘Will you look after him always?'” and his own promise to do so.
Roderic's new relationship with Julia, an artist twenty years younger than he, promises a chance to atone for the wrong turns and betrayals of the past. Julia lost her mother at a young age and has been raised by her father, Dan, who is what I call an artist of daily life: he knows little about visual art but has a deep appreciation for the world around him and the quiet joys of daily life. Julia and Roderic's new life together is threatened when she meets a desperately sad man in the park and tries to help him.
This is a story about art: the joys and costs of pursuing your gift and the consequences of ignoring it. As such, it is a good corrective to Gauguin's story where his obstinate devotion to his art comes to seem more like self-indulgence, challenging me to weigh the mesmerizing beauty of the paintings against the pain he inflicted on others.
Here the story is more layered, more complex. I love the descriptions of the process of creation, the way Julia, for example, ponders a piece having to do with scents, interviewing people by presenting them with a cut apple or a turf fire and asking them to write what comes to mind. She isn't sure yet what form the piece will take; perhaps it will never coalesce. I love Dennis's difficulty understanding his brother's abstract paintings and he thoughts as he tries to find a way to connect with them.
Madden takes us back and forth in time, presenting a varied texture of voices, yet never leaving me in any doubt as to where we were and the rightness of learning this bit of the puzzle at this moment. The past is a puzzle. I though of another book I read recently, Perlmann's Silence, by Pascal Mercier, about a German linguist questioning his life's assumptions while trying to lead a conference in Italy. Although the beginning was promising, it was about twice as long as it needed to be and became rather tedious. What has stuck with me, though, is the description of one of the papers. It was on memory and the way we choose the words to describe our past experiences, creating them as lasting artifacts. More than that, though, we try to fit them into a coherent narrative, discarding the aspects and incidents that do not fit that narrative, just as a writer pieces together a novel, laying scene against scene to carry us deeper and deeper into the world she has created.
Although I sometimes assert that I don't like skipping about in time and point of view, I felt safe in Madden's hands. This is a woman who knows what she's doing. I'm off now to find more of her books.