Contemporary Novels Week continues here at Reading Ireland Month with The Truth Must Dazzle Gradually, the beautiful and bittersweet second novel from Helen Cullen.
The novel takes its title from the Emily Dickinson poem Tell all the truth but tell it slant and explores the power and pain that truth, in all its guises, can wield and inflict.
Set over thirty years, the novel traces the lives of Murtagh Moone, his American wife Maeve and their four children on Inis Óg, an island off the west coast of Ireland. The novel opens on the family’s most painful and most defining day. It is Christmas Eve 2005 and Maeve has gone missing. Off on one of her ‘walks’, the family are fearing the worst due to Maeve’s bouts of depression, as this time it seems like she won’t come home.
This incident becomes the centre of the ripple of this novel, with everything that follows flowing to and from it. Cullen takes the reader back to Dublin in the 1970s where aspiring actor Maeve and trainee ceramicist Murtagh meet, their idyllic romance only marred by Maeve’s confession of her debilitating anxiety and depression. Maeve’s illness overshadows their lives as they marry, have children and settle into life on the remote island, where Murtagh works as a potter. The proximity of such a close-knot community means that the truth about Maeve’s illness becomes something the family don’t name and don’t discuss, although “even if they couldn’t name the truth they can feel it in their bones”.
In the years following that fateful Christmas Eve, Cullen delves into the lives of Murtagh and the children as they grow and move away from the life and that singular event that has so defined them. Most affected is Nollaig, the eldest daughter who has stayed on the island, ostensibly to look after her father, but really to avoid making any other decisions about her life.
In the darkest part of her heart, in a secret spot of truth lived a fear that her life in the island has simply saved her from a similar fate elsewhere, one without the excuse of self-appointed responsibilities to explain her loneliness. At least on the island she could call it sacrifice. What would it be called out there?
When the family gathers for Nollaig’s 30th birthday celebrations, tensions and confessions threaten the very fabric of their family and force them to face the truths that have remained hidden, either through choice or by accident, for all these years.
Cullen creates a wonderful sense of place and of character through her evocative prose. Her depiction of Dublin in the 70s is vibrant and vivid, while life on Inis Óg is described with verve and detail. Her female characters in particular are nuanced and wholly believable and she captures Maeve beautifully, never shying from the darkness that is at her centre, but also depicting small moments of love and passion that make her such a charismatic and intriguing woman. It is a thoughtful exploration of mental illness and the toll that illness takes, not just on the sufferer, but on those around them.
Nollaig too, while a lesser character than Murtagh and Maeve, is a subtle portrait of quiet hurt, struggling, as her mother did, with questions of purpose and female agency.
At the heart of this gorgeous family saga is the question of truth and all its implications, and how the complexity of human emotion means that often the most well-intentioned deeds have painful consequences. The Truth Must Dazzle Gradually is a complex and at times heartbreaking book, but as with life, the novel celebrates the moments of truth and beauty that shine through, and these, we are reminded, are the moments to cherish.
As dawn was breaking, Murtagh lifted the repaired vase with its silvery veins and turned it towards the light flooding in from the east. It was more beautiful than before; art made of precious scars. Kintsugi.
This is a compassionate and devastating book. Bring tissues…
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!