Booklist Editor's Choice
Sebastian Barry's new novel reveals "one of the most memorable women in Irish fiction" (San Francisco Chronicle)
It is 1959 in Wicklow, Ireland, and Annie and her cousin Sarah are living and working together to keep Sarah's small farm running. Suddenly, Annie's young niece and nephew are left in their care.
Unprepared for the chaos that the two children inevitably bring, but nervously excited nonetheless, Annie finds the interruption of her normal life and her last chance at happiness complicated further by the attention being paid to Sarah by a local man with his eye on the farm.
A summer of adventure, pain, delight, and, ultimately, epiphany unfolds for both the children and their caretakers in this poignant and exquisitely told story of innocence, loss, and reconciliation.
Oh, Kelsha is a distant place, over the mountains from everywhere. You go over the mountains to get there, and eventually, through dreams.
I can picture the two children in their coats arriving. It is the start of the summer and all the customs of winter and spring are behind us. Not that those customs are tended to now, much.
My grand-nephew and grand-niece, titles that sound like the children of a Russian tsar.
My crab-apple tree seems to watch over their coming, like a poor man forever waiting for alms with cap in hand. There is a soughing in the beech trees and the ash, and the small music of the hens. Shep prances about like a child at a dance with his extra coat of bog muck and the yellow effluents that leak into yards where dogs like to lie.
The children's coats are very nice coats, city coats. Their mother does not neglect the matter of coats, whatever else I could say about her. But they are too nice for a farmyard existence. We will wrap them in old brown paper and put them in the small blue cupboard in their room, and keep the moths from them as best we can.
I herd the children like little calves through the lower leaf of the half-door and into the beautiful glooms of the kitchen. The big sandwiches lie on the scrubbed table, poised like buckled planks on blue and white plates. Words are spoken and I sense the great respect Sarah has for their father Trevor, my fine nephew, magnificent in his Bohemian green suit, his odd, English-sounding name, his big red beard and his sleeked black hair like a Parisian intellectual, good-looking, with deep brown angry eyes. He is handing her some notes of money, to help bring the children through the summer. I am proud of her regard for him and proud of him, because in the old days of my sister's madness I reared him. My poor sister Maud, that in the end could do little but gabble nonsense.
The great enterprise now, with Trevor and the children's mother, is to cross the sea to London and see what can be done. There are ony stagnant pools of things to tempt him here in his own country, there is nothing. He has trained himself up by a scholarship and I can smell the smell of hope in him, the young man's coat. But his hope is proficient and true. I have no doubt but that he will find himself and his care a place to lodge, and fetch about him, and gain employment. He has his grandfather's wholeness of purpose, who rose from a common police recruit to be the chief superintendant of B Division in Dublin, the capital of the whole country.
His father, Matt, Maud's husband, who as good as threw me from the house when finally she died, may drag his polished boots every morning from that rented house in Donnybrook to the savage margins of Ringsend, where he teaches painting and drawing to children who would as much like to learn them as to eat earwigs. Back and forth on that black bike with his winter lamp and ineffectual bell, thinking only of the summer when he can paint the midgy beauties of Wicklow, cursing his fate. But Trevor has the strength and purpose of another generation, with his red beard.
He is kissing the children's heads now and saying goodbye, be good, see you in a few months.
"Every day I will write to you," says the little boy, which is comical since he is too young to know his writing. But the father is not listening to the son, he is staring away into nowhere, distracted no doubt by all the things he has to do, the arrangements, the tickets, the prayers that I think will rise up unbidden, though I know he professes to be a Godless man, one of those modern types that would make me fearful if it was not him.
"Every day, every day," says the boy emphatically.
"I am going to press flowers for you all summer in my autograph album," says the little girl. "There won't be anyone to write their names in it down here."
"Look after yourselves in London," I say to him. "And you need not for a moment worry about the children. You will have enough to do setting yourselves up."
"As soon as everything's in place, we'll send for them," Trevor says. "Thank you, Aunty Annie. It's an enormous help."
'It's no trouble, God knows. We are lucky to have them"
"Don't spoil them," he says.
"We will not. But we will look after them, certainly."
"Good," Trevor says, and kisses my cheek, and away with him out into the paltry sunlight. He doesn't look back, though the children rush to the door.
A conversation with Sebastian Barry
Q: How did you find the inspiration for the character of Annie Dunne? As a male writer did you find it challenging to "create" her? And as a male reader, who are some of your favorite female protagonists?
A: Twenty-five years ago the very first thing I wrote touched on Annie and her world, a world I had known myself as a small boy. It was only these years later, when I had children of my own, and having written both for the theatre and the novel, that I tried the adventure of writing a story in her own words, her own particular language. The inspiration was a desire to draw her back in from the darks of history and time, so that this mirror or shadow of someone I as a child valued above all others might not be entirely lost. As a small child I loved the original Annie—I lived in her pocket, and in the pockets of her small cottage, so I felt at least I knew such a woman, like a spider perhaps "knows" the human room it abides in. Furthermore, to some extent, a person very like Annie "created" me in that I took my clue from her and have tried to live by her lights. A favorite female protagonist, as a male reader, would be perhaps Dorothea, the heroine of George Eliot's Middlemarch.
Q: Annie acknowledges her changing world and thinks she "do[es] not know where this Ireland is now." Where is "this Ireland" now for you, and how might it differ from the one you knew as a child? How much of your own personal experience is woven into the narrative of Annie Dunne?
A: By an accident I have come back to live not far from Kelsha. I can see the mountain of Keadeen from my window. In some ways, nothing here has changed. In others, great barriers of darkness and not knowing close off the past. I don't mourn the loss of Annie's Ireland, a now strange and unrecoverable country, but she does. As I tried to write from inside her own mind, I wondered at her—how much of her grievances arise from a general sense of a sore journey, a life whose stray spark went unanswered and unnoticed. For myself, I felt a bitterness about Ireland when I started to write in the late 1970s. I thought it mean and unheroic. But a country, the idea of a country, may sometimes, as with Annie, be a picture, a simile, of a person's disquiet, a person's happiness or frugal grasp of it. I don't in retrospect think I was immune from this. There are undoubtedly millions of Irelands, as many as there are individual Irish people. A change has occurred in Ireland these last years when unimaginable prosperity has descended upon the country, a change as absolute as the change in the late fifties from cart to car, that carried in new things and erased many old ones, including a certain intimacy of language and the destruction of certain distances, house to house, house to village, village to town, old webs that got swept away but on which particular thoughts and images depended.
Q: With Annie Dunne, as well as your previous novel (The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty), you manage to compress a lot of historical information into an otherwise fictional narrative. How did you approach these writing projects—with a desire to write about a specific historic event or an interest in a particular type of character?
A: At school I was reasonable at history but had a poor grasp of dates. At university I read Latin history and delighted in the comparative unimportance of fact, a tyranny that besets meaning, and the fullness and importance of style. One of my favorite Irish writers is the historian Roy Foster, for me the best prose stylist of my generation. Of course I could say that therefore, for me anyway, history has a fictional force, as does personal memory. Because both suffer from different modes of half fact, they acquire a battered truth, like old houses with the rot and insects teeming invisibly, assailed, but standing. Complicatedly enough, I don't really believe in the recoverability of historic events, but I do in the floating paintings and interior poems that they leave in their wake, the afterlife of facts and events in the human mind. I am interested in these burrs and thorns that gather in the clothes of individuals as they make their way through a life. But my main desire has always been to recover someone from the blank of official history, where their stories can't be written and, therefore, die away. I realize that in doing so in plays and novels, I have maligned them in the sense that I have fictionalized and made them up, though their origin may be in real people. So I have falsified them, often members of my own family, in order to perpetuate them. I am interested also not so much in a type of character, but in those individuals that stand in the memory, solitary and seemingly unimportant, against whom the years move like a black color to eradicate them.
Q: Much of Annie Dunne's difficulties stem from her loyalty to English rule. Is Annie Dunne implicitly a political novel?
A: Annie, like us all, has been in history, in her own portion of it, so, yes, it is a political novel in that sense. But Annie's views are not my own. Annie's view of history, and she was given a glimpse of official history at the beginning of the last century by the accident of being a policeman's daughter, is based on her own prejudices. Mine is based on my prejudices! I grew up in a bohemian family—my mother was an actress and my father an architect and poet. My father especially I think thought history, politics, and to some extent even family, redundant and unimportant. I loved him, but I thought differently. I yearned for family but couldn't reach it. Outside of that, one grandfather had been in the British army in the second war, the other was republican by nature and had played some part in the rising of 1916 that he never made clear to anyone. This was just things as they were, unexamined. Later when I started to write it began to seem quite strange, and I became interested really in unspoken things, family members who didn't fit the bill of conventional Irishness. I married a Presbyterian woman by chance, and that was a further insight into the consequences of difference. Then you notice that the erased history might imply tracts of yourself were simply missing, crossed out. So when I had children, how was I to tell them who they were? I suppose Annie Dunne is part of this, the sorting out of people from history maybe, rather than in history.
Q: There has been an increasing amount of interest in modern Irish literature in recent years. Frank McCourt, Roddy Doyle, Nuala O'Faolain—what is your concept of the "Irish writer"? Are you influenced mainly by Irish writers or do you look elsewhere for inspiration?
A: My heavens—the Irish writer. When I was starting to write you would go into a bookshop in Dublin, in Ireland, and there would be a dark section down the back of the shop, where you might find books by Irish writers. It was a kind of benign separatism in the minds of booksellers. But it seemed to imply that the real books were all the other ones that occupied the main shelves of the shop. Of course, all that has changed, and the lines and lines of Irish books are to be found just inside the doors—still separated off, now I think of it. Well, I don't know what an Irish writer is. Am I one? I wonder does any one of us survive any of the adjectives given us. Can a writer wax and wane in Irishness? Can he or she deny it, like Shaw tried to do, and Swift? The current success of Irish writers, of course may—like that other story of successes, history itself—hide and obscure, under its lights and processions, some of the grander reading experiences that cause no rumpus, especially among the poets. Or it may lead the adventurous into the byways. When I was in my twenties and living around Europe, I carried with me the Shorter Poems of Ezra Pound and other books, but I do not think I carried Irish ones, perhaps to my shame. But I sat in the Luxembourg Gardens and read the letters of Yeats and Joyce and wondered about them. There was a group of men there that played boule every lunchtime and every lunchtime I and a little man in a blue suit, possibly a tramp, certainly as poor as me, watched them. By the end of the summer he was playing with the rest, but I was still watching. Perhaps I wished more to be the tramp, an unpromising individual accepted into a motley group, than Yeats or Joyce. But that may be one definition of an Irish writer. I read Latin and English at university. Virgil, Tacitus, Plautus, Propertius, Catullus, Boswell, Herrick, Brontë, Trollope, Conrad—very useful in realizing that there is really nothing that new under the sun in literature. What seems important is for things to be noticed anew, as if they were new, as a child might do.
Q: As both a novelist and a playwright, do you find yourself treating your native Ireland alternatively as a landscape and a character? For instance, at one point Annie muses over "the broadening cheer of light when [she] walk[s] out into the morning yard." Then, as the description continues, the grass itself "becomes bright and separate, like a wild claw...shouting with green, the lighting in life." Can you tell us a few words about the use of personification in Annie Dunne?
A: The personification of Ireland of course is an old tradition, and indeed the old woman, or "the hag" as the term went, often stood for Ireland in poetry, even as late as Yeats. But I don't think I was after such a thing. Ireland as a landscape and a character...that's an interesting notion. I don't really know the answer. Sometimes, either in accusation or praise, it is said that I write poetically, but the truth seems to me to be that I listen for how the characters speak and try to be faithful to that, wherever it leads. Robert Frost said that dangerous thing: that he looked after the sound and let the sense look after itself. I suppose as a child I could make no distinction between inert matter and things with a beating heart and have held on to that ignorance. After all it is the apprehension of a person of their surroundings that makes up the material, the banner and the inner pictures of a life. Annie lives in a rich world, in the sense that it has daily sights to see that she approves. Such I suppose is the wealth of people that have few coins, the coinage of things as they are, as they show themselves, like those small animals that are familiar to country people but are like revelations, revenants and miracles to city people, or used to be.
Q: You said that The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty began as a play that slowly took shape as a novel. What was the genesis of Annie Dunne? What are you working on now—and in which genre are you writing?
A: I did think of Annie Dunne as a play, but in fact I had already written it in a sense, my first play being about two brothers living on a small farm, Boss Grady's Boys, in 1988. Then there was that story begun twenty-five years ago, in the voice of the little boy. But that wasn't the right way to do it. Kelsha has lain behind a number of other books and plays, especially The Steward of Christendom, where Annie herself appears as a young woman. A book may have a reason more than a genesis, and the desire to write Annie Dunne finally came out of a time a few years ago when a great friend died and a brother fell ill, and I wished, I think, inasmuch as one knows these things, to recapture something of a haven, a place where there was a measure of nurture, even of family, though entirely temporary and erased. Where the soul of the one and the spirit of the other would find rest. Of course a book cannot do these things. But I felt that Annie was my only accomplice in the effort, and though she was distrusted and even disliked by adults in general, yet she, or at least the woman I had in mind and have carried in mind all my life, could love a child, and practiced that love faithfully and without stint when her brief time was given her. At the minute I am just beginning a book set during the First World War. Oddly enough, it is about Annie's brother Willie, who died in Flanders. It's a long way back to go—wish me luck. And good luck to you!
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