Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Molly Fox's Birthday (Deirdre Madden)

--The blurb--
"Dublin, Midsummer: While absent in New York, the celebrated actor Molly Fox has loaned her house to a playwright friend, who is struggling to write a new work. Over the course of this, the longest day of the year, the playwright reflects upon her own life, Molly's, and that of their mutual friend Andrew, whom she has known since university. Why does Molly never celebrate her own birthday, which falls upon this day? What does it mean to be a playwright or an actor? How have their relationships evolved over the course of many years? Molly Fox's Birthday calls into question the ideas that we hold about who we are; and shows how the past informs the present in ways we might never have imagined."
blurb from

--The review--
It can sometimes feel as if the days of true literary fiction are long past: while there are plenty of authors on the contemporary scene writing novels that are funny, sad, political, or just plain silly, they can often lack the certain elegance and timelessness that comes with many modern literary fiction books (think AS Byatt or Iris Murdoch for the kind of eloquence I mean). While the Booker list can bring up a few good reference points each year, it also drops some mighty clangers (even leaving aside the fact that pinpointing and spotlighting literary fiction is perhaps not its specific intent); plus, to use the Booker as a reference point in this way feels a little populist. What about the authors who (for whatever reason) don't make the cut?

Deirdre Madden is, perhaps, one of these authors. Despite writing prominently about Ireland (to the point of being shortlisted for the Orange Prize one year, and winning the Somerset Maugham Award), she didn't even manage to sneak onto the reading list for the Irish Literature module I took at university (and she would have been a welcome relief from Synge, I can tell you). It is an undeserved omission, and Molly Fox's Birthday proved a welcome inauguration into her oeuvre. While mildly artificial at times in terms of the novel's construction, the minimalism of the cast, the composite set of Molly Fox's house, and the parallel patchwork of dialogue between friends and the lone voice of thoughts of Molly Fox's playwright friend (whose name we never find out, and who narrates the entire story almost singlehandedly) is for the most part very naturally crafted. Dialogue and thoughts and scenes and events are woven together well, and the juxtaposition of the usually vibrant Molly with her elusiveness in this novel pervades the entire atmosphere. We know so little about each character and yet we know so much; Madden's writing is a prime example of showing, rather than telling, with characterisation largely constructed through dialogue, thoughts, movements and details.

Madden's work (or at least as far as I can tell from this virginal experience) also exemplifies what the newly-appointed Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, calls "using simple words in a complicated way". Madden's vocabulary is largely extremely accessible, and yet she uses it dextrously in order to create complex characters, scenes and back stories. In addition to this, however, she also throws in a few fancier words from time to time ('reliquary', anyone?), demonstrating how good writers can truly reach people without compromising on the richness of the language in which they write.

All of these aspects make reading Madden's work a haunting and eloquent experience that stays with you long-term; while no writer is perfect, her work is something for other writers to aspire to, and for readers to not delay the experience of.

Other works by Deirdre Madden
Hidden Symptoms (1986)
The Birds of the Innocent Wood (1988)
Remembering Light and Stone (1993)
Nothing is Black (1994)
One by One in the Darkness (1996)
Authenticity (2002)
Snake's Elbows (2005)
Thanks for Telling Me, Emily (2007)

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