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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Thursday, May 25, 2017

A narrative-memoir that actually has a powerful plot: Reading in the Dark

Reading in the Dark (Seamus Deane, 1995) is not only a beautifully written memoir-like novel, with each chapter - all of them short, all with titles, as if they were short stories - proceeding chronologically across the life of the narrator, from about 5 years old up to ... I'm not sure where it will end. But also: the novel develops a compelling plot line as well. This is not just about a series of moments in the life of the narrator, who is part of a large Catholic family in Protestant-controlled Northern Ireland, beginning in 1945 (when the narrator, like the author, was 5); Deane does a terrific job slyly introducing a plot, centered on the mysterious disappearance of the narrator's uncle Eddie. In a series of revelations, the narrator learns that his uncle didn't disembark for Chicago, as rumor had it, but was actually killed because it was learned that the was a spy for the British-Protestant police officers. This narrative goes on to get more complex - there will be no spoilers here - involving both sides of the boy's family. In many memoirs, part of the energy comes from the naivete of the narrator - we know more than he can know or understand at his young age; this novel plays a trick on that familiar trope, with the young narrator actually knowing more than the adults around him, but pledged to secrecy - and he's of course tormented by the burden he's carrying inside. Death of grandparent is also a trope in many memoirs and memoir-novels, and we do get that plot element here, but Deane brings much originality to this episode - the young narrator sitting in vigil beside his dying grandfather, witnessing his grandfather's refusal to give confession and take the last rites, and then having the grandfather "confess" to the young boy - a powerful and unusual scene, which Deane follows with a harrowing chapter about the depression and delusions that the boy's mother suffers after her father dies: no one in the family except the young narrator - and us - understands what is drawing her down.

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