I read The Dark Hole Days by Una Woods as part of Reading Ireland Month, but have only just got round to reviewing it.
A slim novella, The Dark Hole Days presents the parallel lives of Joe and Colette, two young people living in Belfast from either side of the sectarian divide, who don’t know each other but whose lives will be tragically intertwined and mutually devastated by one horrible event, brought about by the social and political circumstances of this place at this time.
The book is narrated alternately through their two diaries in which the reader discovers that both Colette and Joe are looking for something more than the drab lives they are currently living in ‘80s Belfast. Colette loves her large family and her serious boyfriend, but she has a yearning to leave them all behind and start a new life somewhere else, a yearning that only grows when she and her boyfriend go to Birmingham for the weekend to visit his brother.
It’s not exactly the moon I’m asking for but surely all dreams don’t end here: me in a duffle coat signing on the dole and walking in the debris of Belfast. Then I look at Mam, so at home with herself, and I think, why should I want more. Or different…it’s a predicament.
Joe is looking for a sense of belonging and meaning through the secret training he does with the IRA (whom he never names). ‘I hated history in school’, he confides to his diary. ‘Now I’m in it.’ Despite the reservations of his mother, Joe feels quietly important thanks to clandestine meetings and subtle manoeuvres, most of which he does not even really understand. He has a crush on the girl who works in the dole office and thinks that if she just knew what he was doing then she would somehow be impressed with him. He has joined up out of a misguided need for something to bolster his own self-esteem, for something to make him feel different rather than out of any sense of righteousness or anger.
Some people have nothing to look forward to. Their eyes show it, just staring at the next man… and not event seeing. It used to get me down when I was one of them…Isn’t it funny how the way you feel changes the way you look. She can see my dignity.
Both Colette and Joe see their respective dreams collapse when the group Joe is working with are involved in an indiscriminate murder involving Colette’s family. The reality of the violence that he has so blithely become a part of is too much for Joe and he hides from both the law and his complicity by literally burying himself under the floorboards of his bedroom while his mother sticks to the story that has gone to England for a job. Without spoiling the events of the book, it is safe to say that Colette for her part is now as trapped as Joe, unable now to ever leave the city, which has taken what she loves most.
The Dark Hole Days was written in 1984 and it excels in exploring the drab ordinariness of life in Belfast, despite the Troubles. The characters are more concerned about other issues – unemployment, relative poverty, domestic violence and class-consciousness – as they would be in any other part of the United Kingdom at that time.
This may well be a Troubles narrative, but it feels like a more personal work that that, emphasised by the use of the diary form. The structure is a useful medium for emphasising alienation and the strains of communication and Woods does not attribute blame of victimhood on either of her protagonists, rather exploring the issues that have trapped them both in different ways. There is a restrained precision to the writing, which allows the fates of the two characters to remain both unresolved and painfully real.
Una Woods was writing and publishing at a time when he massive under-representation of women writers in Northern Ireland, in both publishing and in inclusion in academic courses. Following publication of The Dark Hole Days, her work subsequently appeared in the seminal collection The Female Line, the first anthology of women’s writing from Northern Ireland ever published. The anthology included women who were already professionally writing and those who had never been published before and it featured extracts from novels, short stories, poetry and drama.
Her work, like other writers in that anthology, brought a very different perspective on the much talked about and written about conflict and The Dark Hole Days is a subtle and interesting addition to the genre of Troubles literature.
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