Following on from This Is Not a Novel, here is another seemingly quiet novel about friendship and family that has a depth and insight that belies a simple exterior.
The Irish actor Molly Fox is the finest of her generation. On Midsummer’s Day, Molly’s birthday, she is in New York working on a play and her homely, cluttered house in Dublin has been borrowed by the story’s narrator – her playwright friend who is struggling with writer’s block and has come to work. Throughout the day, the nameless playwright goes about her everyday life and meditates on her friendship with Molly and on her other main friendship from her student days with Andrew Forde, who has now found fame as a celebrity TV historian. All three have found success in their careers, less so in their personal lives and all three have created new versions of themselves at odds with their backgrounds and upbringing.
Our narrator, from a large Catholic family in rural Northern Ireland, had a happy childhood, but has distanced herself from that rural way of life to work in the world of theatre in London. Andrew, also from Northern Ireland, is almost her opposite, a Belfast Protestant with a brother who was murdered by paramilitaries. His transformation from this to celebrated television academic has brought about a whole new person and a new way of being.
Yet, despite being completely absent from the narrative, permenantly in the wings, it is Molly Fox who is the prism through which everything in this deft novel is viewed. Molly is always off stage, but always present and we learn that she too has had a rebirth following a traumatic childhood. Molly’s profession as an actor is the central theme of the novel, as our narrator muses on the nature of identity. As a playwright, she marvels at the actor’s ability to inhabit another person, but the novel also subtly suggests that this is what we all do and that performance and artifice are part of our everyday lives.
A certain school of thought says that who we are is something we construct for ourselves. We build our self out of what we think we remember, what we believe to be true about our life; and the possessions we gather around us are supposedly a part of this, that we are, to some extent, what we own. I have always been, and still am, hugely resistant to these ideas, because, I think, they are so much at odds with the Catholic idea of the self.
The book explores the notion that what we acquire and gather around ourselves goes part way to our expression of who we are. Molly’s home is almost a piece of performance art, a set onto which our narrator has stumbled and is unable to feel entirely comfortable in. Great detail is given to the objects in her house – her books, the gifts she has been given, her pottery. A small table in the hall houses framed photographs of Molly and the awards that she has won and it becomes a kind of altar, a shrine to her talent and career.
Objects take on an almost religious significance, they become charms against some unknowable danger. Molly buys a new first edition before every production, while Andrew feels a superstitious attachment to the ring that belonged to his brother and discusses
the energy there can be in things. Jewellery, or a piece of silver or glass
Our narrator fixates on the one incongruous item in Molly’s house – a large Perspex cow which she has placed in her back garden and which seems entirely out of place in her well-kept, tasteful home. The cow becomes a symbol of the unknowable part of people and how we can never see the entire person, no matter how well we think we know them.
Molly is also shown to collect people around her, mainly the friends of other’s and this often leads to petty jealousies and slights. Our nameless narrator may not be unreliable as such, but it is often hard to trust a character who claims to be the best of friends. She admits to having lied to Molly in the past and is jealous of Molly’s friendship with both Andrew and her brother Tom.
friendship is only that, friendship. There are areas of reserve and distance, knowledge and experience that cannot be shared or entered into.
For a playwright, who needs to know everything about the character they are creating, this dichotomy is frustrating, that we can never fully know the people we love the most, nor can we let them know everything about ourselves.
The same is true of siblings, and Madden deftly works those relationships into her character’s lives. Molly, Andrew and our narrator all have siblings who cast long shadows over their lives. Andrew’s brother Billy, with whom he was never close before he was killed, is absent from the narrative, but his presence is deeply felt. The narrator is in awe of her charismatic elder brother Tom, a Catholic priest, and is unhappy when he spends time with Molly. Molly’s brother Fergus, an alcoholic and depressive, makes an appearance and at times appears to be the most grounded of the cast.
At one point, the narrator says
Sometimes the most important and powerful element is an absence, a lack, a burnished space in your mind that glows and aches as you try to fill it
This is what Deirdre Madden does so brilliantly in Molly Fox’s Birthday. So many of the characters are absent, glimpsed rather than seen, but they are incarnated in memories, objects and words. There is a religious aspect to the writing that is in tune with the notion of theatre as a place of rebirth, metamorphosis and transubstantiation. Like our narrator’s writers block, Madden wrestles with the question of what do we have that is worth saying? And if we tell someone everything, are we telling them anything at all?
There are other themes at work in Molly Fox’s Birthday – the questioning of happiness and success and whether or not one must chose love over work, but for me the brilliance of Madden’s writing is its subtlety and restraint. She knows when to step back and leave the reader to their own devices, she knows when to tell you what is worth saying to create a novel that is astute and compelling.
Just as an aside and to give you a feel of how small Northern Ireland is, I discovered after reading this that Deirdre Madden is from Toomebridge in County Antrim, about 10 miles from where I live and the town where my mother was born and grew up. I was chatting to my aunt, who still lives there and asked if she knew her. Her reply?
‘Sure you know Deirdre Madden, her uncle is Ned Madden from the Shore Road, remember? Aye, she’s a writer and the sister’s an artist. Smart girls’.
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