It just goes to show that in this small country nearly every family has undergone a loss. Even minor psychological scars run as deep here as bullet holes but, without them, our writing would not have its passion and depth.Northern Irish writer Rosemary Jenkinson in The Irish Times
One by One in the Darkness is set in County Antrim in 1994 just before the ceasefire and tells the story of three sisters who have grown up through the political turmoil of 1960’s and 1970’s Northern Ireland. Despite a somewhat idyllic childhood largely free from sectarian violence, their father Charlie Quinn has been murdered two years previously in a case of mistaken identity.
Was it possible to have too happy a childhood, to be loved too much?
As the book opens, the middle sister Cate, is coming home to Northern Ireland for a week-long visit to see her family and share some news. She is the middle of the Quinn sisters and is a glamourous and successful fashion journalist, living in London. Helen, the eldest sister, is a lawyer based in Belfast who deals mainly with cases involving the perpetrators of terrorist offences. Sally, the youngest sister, has stayed in the family home, looking after their mother Emily, and teaching in the primary school all three girls attended.
The novel is beautifully structured – each chapter relating to a day of the week of Cate’s visit – and it uses multiple narrative voices and a dual timeline to create an incredibly nuanced and unsentimental portrait of an ordinary family caught up in extraordinary circumstances.
The sense of impending tragedy gains momentum from very early on in the novel, and as the past catches up with the present, the traumatic event at the heart of the novel – the murder of their father – is not recounted until the final devastating pages.
A lot of fiction from Northern Ireland naturally concerns looking back at the past in an attempt to understand the future, but what marks One By One in the Darkness out as different is that the past that is being explored is a happy one. The girls have had a wonderful childhood and the book seems to me to be asking, what do you do with all those good memories, when one bad thing has shattered them to pieces? How do we remember, when remembering brings so much pain and trauma?
This then becomes a collective question – how, as a society do we move on, when our shared past contains so much pain?
The strength of Madden’s writing lies in her refusal to sensationalise what has happened to the Quinn family; she prefers to focus on the way the pieces of a life are carefully, sometimes determinedly put back together rather than on the force which has torn them apart. Violence frequently intruded on domestic spaces during the Northern Irish conflict through army raids and paramilitary violence, and Madden dramatises the psychological impact this has on a family’s experience of home and the surrounding landscape of Northern Ireland more generally.
There is a scene where Helen is recollecting a Halloween party in her Uncle Brian’s house. She’s remembering a wonderful, happy time, but now that memory has been robbed of its joy, because it takes place in the spot where her father was killed.
Cate drives around Northern Ireland when she’s home for a visit and is struck by the fact that the very names of places have become inextricably linked with the atrocities that occurred there –and it is a similar experience as Helen’s.
In Northern Ireland, the personal becomes the political.
She saw signposts for places which had once held no particular significance but whose names were now tainted by the memory of things which had been done there: Claudy, Enniskillen, Ballykelly. She drove and drove and drove under grey skies and soft clouds.
The towns and fields slipped past her until she felt that she was watching a film, and then she realised that if she had been asked to pick a single word to sum up her feelings towards Northern Ireland she would be at a complete loss, so much so that she didn’t even know whether a negative or a positive word would have been more apt.
It is particularly arresting and refreshing to read what would be considered a ‘Troubles’ novel in the voice of different generations of women, looking back on their lives through the lens of trauma and retrospection. This perspective is all the more pertinent given that the sisters, and their mother and grandmothers, are strong and forthright women existing in an environment which is driven and directed by male power. The juxtaposition of the sisters’ different feelings about the trauma of their shared childhood and how these reactions have impacted their differing adult lives is subtly and intricately woven into the story.
The power of One by One in the Darkness comes from the lucidity of Madden’s prose and the comforting denseness of the detail of family life. This is a novel about an extraordinary event yet ordinariness is its essence and its anchor.
Nobody could fathom the suffering the Troubles has brought people, and all the terrible things that had happened.
When Sally came in a moment later with a cup of tea and some biscuits for Emily, it somehow confirmed this: Sally going over to the window and saying wasn’t that a lovely chaffinch on the tree there; asking Emily if she was warm enough; admiring the Dutch fern Helen had bought a couple of weeks ago; this affectionate ordinariness was the dearest thing in life for Emily, and that was what had been destroyed; Charlie should have been there with them.
The crux of the novel comes when Helen, in the course of her work, is meeting the mother of a teenage boy who has shot and killed a taxi driver. Despite overwhelming evidence, the mother will not accept that her son might be guilty. Here are two women, one whose family member has been an innocent victim of violence and one whose family member is a guilty perpetrator of violence.
Oliver’s mother knew full well what had happened to Helen’s father. The danger was that Helen might say, ‘I would rather be me than you: I wouldn’t be you for anything.’ That was the one thing Mrs Maguire wouldn’t have been able to handle, and suddenly Helen realised that if she were to speak at all now, that was the only thing she would be able to say. Mrs Maguire knew it too. The two women sat there looking at each other. At last, Oliver’s mother spoke.
“It’s all like a dream, so it is,” she said very softly. “All like a terrible dream”
In this short passage, Madden perfectly encapsulates how deep and how wide trauma goes in Northern Ireland. Charlie Quinn has not been an isolated incident, his death comes in the midst of countless deaths. Each victim in this conflict had a family, and their killers had a family and the aftermath of a moment of violence ripples out and back endlessly.
One By One In the Darkness is a rare thing – a beautiful and moving book about a truly terrible event – and for me it is one of the defining novels of the Troubles, written by one of Northern Ireland’s finest and most underappreciated writers.
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About the Author
Deirdre Madden was born in Toomebridge, County Antrim and studied at Trinity College, Dublin, where she won the Costello Award for English Literature. Her early short stories were published in Ireland in various magazines and in 1980 she won the prestigious Hennessy Literary Award. Her first novella Hidden Symptoms, was published in 1986 and won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. Her first novel, The Birds of the Innocent Wood, as published in 1998 and won the Somerset Maugham Award. One by One in the Darkness and Molly Fox’s Birthday were shortlisted for the Orange Prize. She has written nine novels for adults and three for children and currently lives in Dublin where she teaches at Trinity College.
- Read a fascinating interview with Deirdre Madden by the late Eileen Battersby in the Irish Times, which includes Deirdre pulling Eileen up for a pas bad review!
- Here is a great review of One By One in the Darkness by Kim at Reading Matters
- This is a fantastic essay on The Memory of Trauma in One by One in the Darkness by Rebecca Long
- Check out this quick Small Talk interview in the Financial Times where Madden sings the praises of The Borrowers!
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!