When Light is Like Water by Molly McCloskey

In her grieving state following the death of her mother, Alice (an American NGO who has been working in Kenya) has returned to Ireland, the country where she spent her formative years, to see if she can recapture her place in the world.


She came to Ireland in the late 80s as a twentysomething looking for adventure. In pre-boom Ireland, adventure is hard to come by, but while working in a bar in Sligo, she meets Eddie and is attracted to his reassuring steadfastness and generosity. They marry and buy a house, with the approval of Alice’s mother, but Alice realises all too late that Eddie is not what she was looking for.

She begins an affair with someone who appears to be the opposite of Eddie, the caustic and exotic Cauley – a playwright who lives in Dublin, but this only brings added anxiety to Alice’s already complicated life.

I would fall prey to the fear that our next rendezvous would surely be the moment when the whole thing went flat before our eyes. Then the day would come, the minutes ticking towards his appearance until, finally, there he was. And always there was a sense of – it is hardly too strong a word – horror.

Alice and Cauley’s affair is not romanticised in McCloskey’s lyrical and moving book. She explores the excitement and danger explicit in the affair, but also the drudging banality that comes from a relationship born on a bed of lies. Alice knows that she doesn’t want Eddie, but is unsure what it is she wants from Cauley either and the affair and its fall out are drawn out in all that complicated, unsentimental messiness.

I read once that commit to love is to commit to loves diminishment. Which means that commitment is less about optimism than it is about realism – accepting that love is doomed to become less of itself, and proceeding anyway, in the faith that one will be equal to that truth when it arrives.

When Light is Like Water is a beautifully written book. Molly McCloskey is particularly good at capturing time and place, whether it be Dublin, Sligo or Florida, where Alice’s mother lives. By setting her novel in the pre-Celtic Tiger Years, she explores the provincialism of Ireland, where an American in town would cause a stir and where everyone and anyone can know your business. However, despite its lyricism and meditative qualities, the book remains clear-eyed in its examination of the machinations of romantic love.

Having said that, Alice can be at times, a difficult character to get a hold on. It is only later in the book that we even come to know her name. Her aloofness means that she can often tell much, but explain little leaving her strangely unknowable to the reader, particularly as she explores her relationship with the two men in her life. Did she ever really love Eddie? Or Cauley? Did she engineer the affair to end her marriage? Answers are never made clear and the reader comes to realise that Alice is hiding as much as she is telling. Perhaps this is intentional – just as Alice cannot grasp her own reasons for throwing her marriage away, neither can we, however her narration can be at times distancing to the detriment of the emotional heft of the story.

However, it is in the relationship between Alice and her mother that the true meaning of love becomes apparent. Despite the novel being about a marriage and an affair, the key relationship in it is a maternal one. Here McCluskey writes beautifully about that first relationship and how the loss of it can lead us to question everything that has gone before.

The whole of our history came to me in the form of a mood, as love is a mood, so everything was coloured, briefly, by the knowledge of her existence.

When Light is Like Water is a quiet, multi-layered novel that deserves a wider audience, given its exploration of love, relationships and the need to find a place that we can call home.

If we don’t know where we belong, we can feel homesick for almost anywhere we’ve been

I received a copy of When Light is Like Water from Penguin Random House in return for an honest review.





Irish Literature

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

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