The opening chapters of Hartís tightly wound novel are initially compelling, with emotionally dense but powerful images of a young boy
hanging on the brink of death. We donít know much about him except that heís screaming in pain
- it appears that his arm has been blasted off after an explosion. As the boy he calls for his mother, his brother, Daragh, and his sister, Olivia, stuff falls away out of his mind as the pain becomes almost noisy with intensity.
This is Ireland in June 1962.
The boyís father, Tom OíHara, is devastated; the surgeon says there was never any hope that he could have survived,
and that itís probably best that he didnít. The local priest and bishop offer their condolences to the family
- particularly to Sissy OíHara, the boyís fragile mother, who takes to her bed unable to cope with the tragedy.
Meanwhile, Hart introduces another narrative voice in the form of Thomas Middlehoff, who unexpectedly becomes our cypher for much of the fallout from the accident. A German living in this small, insular Irish town, Middlehoff is the observer and the stranger, the elected outsider with an anatomical eye.
Preoccupied with his book dealing with his fatherís time in Dublin and Clonmel in the late
Thirties, he comes to the funeral in the rain and cold, mourning with the others and offering a measure of comfort to the family at home, along with an offer to visit his Lake House deep in the local countryside.
Soon enough other encounters frame these characters' lives: Tom OíHara arrives at the Middlehoff house bringing a message of thanks; he also asks if he can purchase a gate at the perimeter of the Germanís land.
There's a confession by the German to Tom that he had injured Olivier in a traffic accident.
Later, when Sissy is admitted to hospital, the doctors worry over her descent into such a deep place. Thereís the offer for treatment of such ancient pain in the form of electro-convulsive therapy to assuage her mind,
which seems frozen in some terrible lie.
Hartís novel unfolds like a vast tone poem to love, loss, and the suffering of the Irish. The soul of Ireland is always tangible
amid tales of men who fought hard and long against the weight of old sadnesses, their burdens now on young shoulders with an unpayable debt to ghosts.
I was left feeling weighed down by the authorís style. Often bleak and overly didactic, the history of German literature is muddled with national suffering and the struggles of the Irish independence movement even as the more compelling themes of sin, the power of forgiveness and the bitter bruises of love echo through Sissy,
whose only hope lies in resignation and then Olivier, her confessional to Middlehoff providing a panacea in this difficult, dark novel.