COLONEL EVANSON: Why did you place your wife in the fire?
CLEARY: I would not have done that. I would sooner put myself in the fire than put my wife in it.
Carlo Gebler’s The Cure is based on the true story of Bridget Cleary, an Irish woman who was burned to death by her husband in 1895. Michael Cleary’s defence was that his wife had been abducted by fairies and a changeling left in her place. Following her murder, he believed that the real Bridget would be returned to him, riding naked on a white horse at the fairy rath at midnight.
Last year I reviewed Angela Bourke’s fantastic factual account of the case The Burning of Bridget Cleary, which placed the case in its political and sociological context. Gébler’s novel doesn’t stray far from the facts, but he takes this intriguing tale and tells it from several points of view, all the time focusing on the superstitions and ingrained belief in myths that were prolific in Ireland at that time.
The book opens with Bridget Cleary attending a local healer to try and help her get pregnant. She and Michael have been married for a year, but are yet to have a child. Bridget is sure that this ‘cure’ will help with their infertility and when it doesn’t, she attends for a second time.
Soon after, Bridget wakes up feverish and with a sore throat. Regardless she leaves the house to sell eggs, as normal, to a local man, Mr Hagan. During their transaction, a wind gets up,
Mr Hagan bent down to lift Bridget’s basket from the ground and hand it back to her. At that moment there was a huge gust of wind. Leaves and twigs from the ditches were lifted up into the air, and the basket started to roll away down the road at a fantastic rate.
Once the basket is retrieved, Bridget heads home, but is caught in a heavy downpour. Her fever worsening, she takes to her bed, unaware that her unfortunate fate is now in progress.
Using a subtle change in narrators, Gébler paints a picture of a town steeped in Catholicism, superstition, jealousy and misguided loyalties. As Bridget’s illness worsens, her husband calls not for the doctor, but first for a local healer and then for the priest. When the doctor finally comes and diagnoses bronchitis, the fear and paranoia around Bridget’s illness will not be abated with mere medicine. As her husband’s mental state deteriorates and his father dies, Gebler builds the tension with great skill, as the Cleary’s family and friends become embroiled in a situation that none of them can control.
There was another power in the world, if one only knew when and how to invoke it.
Gébler takes no sides in The Cure. Telling the story from several viewpoints, he explores how Michael Cleary’s belief in fairies grew from a childhood incident. Following a harsh beating from his mother, he wished her taken by the fairies, his wish unfortunately coinciding with his mother falling ill. Her subsequent stay in hospital is hidden from the child, so he spends several days thinking himself responsible for his mother’s disappearance and cowed by the power of the fairy world.
In Gébler’s telling, he comes across as a changeable man – loving and caring to Bridget at one point and cruel and distant at another. Michael’s own father is unsure of his son;
There was something unnatural about his son. Something hard. He didn’t like to have to admit this, but his child was a stranger, an outsider. He was, and James hardly dared frame the thought, he was not human in some sense.
The death of his father, the inability to have children and his wife’s illness seem to push him to the brink as his belief that Bridget has been replaced by a changeling grows in conviction. He is reminded that the very house they are living in was built on a fairy rath, adding to his conviction that the blast of wind that blew Bridget’s basket away was a fairy wind that took his real wife with it.
According to some legends, the fairies were those in the heavenly host who were indecisive during the great struggle between God and Lucifer, not knowing with whom to side. After Satan’s defeat, there was no longer a place for them in heaven, yet they did not merit the punishment of hell, so God banished them to earth, where they took up residence in the abandoned hill-forts.
The behaviour of the other characters come less from their mental states and more from their relationship towards the Cleary’s. Family loyalty, sexual jealousy and misguided logic means that the many chances to save Bridget are missed by those who should have protected her the most. John Dunne, a neighbour whose advances were spurned by Bridget, takes great pleasure in her punishment, while her best friend Johanna does nothing to stop what is happening.
While fairy legend also allowed the Irish peasantry to explain away the unexplainable – child mortality, physical and mental disability and sudden illness – it was also used as a way to keep women and children in check and remind them of their place in the patriarchal society. Bridget’s beauty, intelligence and social standing made her a target and there is a sense here that many around her felt she was getting what she deserved for her hubris.
We will never know whether or not Michael Cleary believed he was killing a fairy, rather than his wife and Gébler cleverly does not allow his narrative to fall to one conclusion or the other.
His device of framing the narrative within a story of an author finding papers relating to Bridget’s death amongst his own father’s belongings isn’t entirely necessary for the book to work, but it does emphasises the idea that our belief systems come indirectly from the relationships between parent and child and can influence our actions for years to come.
Carlo Gébler has long been referred to as ‘Edna O’Brien’s son’ and his writing is to my mind often underrated. This is the first of his novels that I have read, but won’t be the last.
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