When Sinn Fein abjured its violent tactics in 1998, there was to be an end to the terrorism and bombings in Ireland, so I never think about Ireland anymore.
But religious segregation is still the rule and not the exception in northern Ireland, with ”the Catholic bakery; and the Protestant taxi company,” though I’m sorry to say I was unaware of it. With so many global crises in the news, my mind easily forewent thinking about Ireland’s anguish.
This story set in present-day Ireland reveals a society still seething with hatreds---religious, cultural, and political—and an IRA that tyrannizes through thuggery, protection rackets, and terrorism. The tensions and hatreds that prevailed over the decades, and centuries, are still festering there, blighting hopes for integration, reconciliation, and peace.
There is a fine contrast between the rural Irish setting, which the protagonist, Tessa describes as “more of a place to recover from a war,“ and the violent, hate-ridden reality of the people who populate it.
I first listened to this audiobook several months ago. When I began work on this report, I found I couldn’t remember the name of the main character! Relistening, I see it’s Tessa. In trying to understand why I couldn’t remember it, I found that she is so much alone that almost no one calls her by name. It’s interesting that her voice, presence, and experience are so vivid, but she has a tenuous, elusive persona, somehow articulated only by her dilemma and her struggle to survive it. She is shadowy, yet always in plain sight.
Tessa is the producer of a BBC political program, and is trying to remain apolitical, living on the fringes of conflict, keeping her distance from it, though she is knowledgeable and quite sophisticated in her grasp of what’s happening around her.
Discovering to her horror, that her beloved sister Marion has disappeared, and later, has apparently joined the IRA, Tessa is compelled to work for the IRA under their treat of killing Marion if she refuses.
She is then recruited to spy for the English, who are undercover in Ireland, trying to bring an end to the terrorism that still plagues the country. Her initial response is revulsion at turning her coat and helping the hated British, and she reacts with terror and evasion. But when her sister is revealed to be risking her life in aid of a peaceful coexistence between Protestants and Catholics, and that she is in mortal danger unless she, Tessa, appears to join the IRA, she must undergo a deeply disturbing shift in her loyalties, from being anti-conflict and apolitical, to becoming a reluctant, terrified double agent for both the British and IRA herself. The situation has ludicrous undertones that might be comical in another situation, but for its tragic verisimilitude.
This story is a miniature---an isolated individual’s story--that unfolds within the seething currents of Ireland’s mortal conflicts. Tessa is very much alone with her situation: divorced from her unhelpful husband, she has only her infant son, Finn, her sister Marion, and their staunch mother.
This is a quiet, private story, written in a unique way that I found revelatory: this mewling baby, Finn, is nearly her only interlocutor throughout the book. He is the wordless and unknowing witness, comforting his mother with his baby chuntering (I think that means burping and puking), feeding, sleeping, crooning, and kicking his heels against her thighs. Tessa is sustained and strengthened by her baby’s animal existence and the requirement to protect and care for him. She is nearly always alone, with only her baby boy for company.
The intrigues and maneuverings of the IRA and British happen entirely out of sight, and this drama is largely enacted in the solitude of Tessa’s mind, in the intimacy of her tiny home, in the minute spaces between herself and her sister, her mother, and especially, her infant son. The narrator’s matter-of-fact delivery adds poignancy to Tessa’s quiet desperation. She is watched, terrorized, and manipulated by unseen IRA and British agents, prowling the fields around her home and hidden in plain sight in the community. When she joins her sister in the inescapable trap of spying or dying, her vulnerability and panic vibrate and give energy to each scene, however static the action.
Finn is as much a character in this story as Tessa. His growth and maturing are the gauge of time’s passage in the narrative, and reveal the changes in the world he was born into, where the unremitting “troubles” lie just below the surface, or break out into shootings, bombings, and marauding masked men. A person in his own right, he is a character, a witness, and a participant; a victim and a survivor with his mother, though he doesn’t yet have the ability to speak. The recurring moments between Finn and Tessa form a continuum of sanity within an environment of madness, where Tessa’s motherhood gives her a powerful focus and"
carole bolsey (5 out of 5 stars)