No 331 Hidden Symptoms by Deirdre Madden #readingirelandmonth23

Deirdre Madden is the author of 10 novels and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction for her 1997 novel Molly Fox’s Birthday. Hidden Symptoms, published in 1986 was her debut novella and lays out the central concerns of her fiction – memory, trauma, personal integrity and the lasting but ambiguous links between the past and the present.

Set in Belfast in the 1980s, Hidden Symptoms is the densely told story of three friends in their twenties, all of whom are haunted by unhappiness, plagued by a difficult family life and prime to introspection.

Theresa Cassidy is struggling spiritually and psychologically to understand the brutal and random killing of her beloved twin brother Francis several years previously. She keeps the truth of her brother’s death from Robert, an aspiring writer, with whom she has a testing, sparring relationship. Robert is himself, still trying to come to terms with the death of his mother, and maintains a fractured relationship with his sister, whose bland suburban life he abhors. Robert is the boyfriend of Kathy, Theresa’s best friend, who has a difficult relationship with her own cold and aloof mother, but her life is thrown into disarray when she discovers that her father, whom she had always been told was dead, is alive and living in London with his new family.

…there had been truth, undeniable truth…for when something happened which was truly dreadful it was the little peripheral pains which made the central agony so inescapable and so intense.

Each of the character’s desire to control and withhold information is pivotal to the plot of Hidden Symptoms. Theresa does not want to be defined by the murder of her brother and the reader, like Robert, must wait for hints and memories in order to discover the truth about what happened to him. Robert is trying to make a new life for himself, by hiding the truth of his suburban Catholic upbringing. He curates a specific look, in both himself and his surroundings and his liberal, centrist political views allow him to cultivate a point of view without believing in anything at all. Kathy doesn’t want Robert to know that she has discovered her father is still alive, because the shame of his abandonment is too much for her to accept, let alone share with a lover.

These ruptures between appearance and reality, the covering up of the ‘hidden symptoms’ of the title, are traced through leitmotifs of doubling, opposites and reflections. Madden writes with a spare clarity and a lyrical beauty, reminding me at times of John McGahern. Set against the backdrop of the Troubles at its height, she doesn’t allow her narrative to become overshadowed by its setting. She never resorts to blunt overkill, but rather evokes a sense of fear and mistrust that came with daily life in Ulster at that time. There is a moving moment when Theresa is meeting Kathy for a drink in a city pub and she realises that any one of the men congregated there could have been the man who killed her brother.

It was, of course, improbable, but it was possible, and that grain of possibility took away the innocence of every man in the pub and of every man whom she would ever see in the city. Every stranger’s face was a mask behind which Francis’s killer might be hiding.

The strength of Madden’s writing lies in her refusal to sensationalise what has happened to her characters; 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 and Madden dramatises the psychological impact this has on a person’s notion of home and what home has come to mean.

Hidden Symptoms deals with many of the themes that come to fruition in Madden’s masterful later novel One by One in the Darkness and while it doesn’t reach the heights of that particular work, it is a studied, intricate and affecting novella, which shows that Madden always has been a singular voice in Irish literature.

Kim at Reading Matters is also a Deirdre Madden fan and you can read her review of Hidden Symptoms here.

Number Read: 416
Number Remaining: 330

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

16 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I’ve read (and enjoyed) Molly Fox’s Birthday but nothing else by Madden. Your mention of John McGahern makes me think I should read more. Start with this one or leapfrog to One by One in the Darkness?


  2. Thanks for the shout out. I love Madden and wish her books were more readily available … I search for her every ime I’m in a bookshop but she’s never in stock!

    Did I tell you that time she sent me a lovely email for reviewing her books? I was bowled over by it!


  3. One by One in the Darkness was one of my favourite books last year. Hidden Symptoms sounds great as well! What other books by Deirdre Madden would you recommend?


  4. Somehow this author has completely passed me by and you’ve definitely persuaded me to rectify this immediately! Everything you describe about her style and themes is so appealing, I’m sure I’ll love her writing.


  5. This sounds great. I’ve not read anything by her, nor have I read enough about The Troubles. This one and a novel called Time Present and Time Past are available from my local library service and are now on my library wishlist (which is almost as many books high as my actual To Read pile).


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