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Deirdre Madden, Molly Fox’s Birthday – TLS

22/08/2008

Not by accident does an Irish writer set a novel in Dublin, over the course of one June day, with a character called Molly as the centre of attention. Deirdre Madden’s purpose, in her seventh outing (nine if you count recent detours into children’s fiction), remains elusive, however.

This day unfolds in the mind of an unnamed narrator, a dramatist struggling to bring her latest play into existence. Ideas flit about: the work might have something to do with animals – there’s a hare she’s chasing down, then a lost dog. But, lodged temporarily in the house of her friend, the actress, Molly Fox, and surrounded by Molly’s possessions, it is to her life, and that of their friend Andrew, that her thoughts keep straying. She has known them since studying at Trinity twenty years earlier, and for Andrew, a television art critic, and refugee from violence in the North, she harbours an unspoken, scarcely acknowledged desire. (Even in Molly’s house, though, she is denied the chance to say at last, “yes I will Yes”.)

Alongside Ulysses, Madden proposes another precursor: Adam Bede bookends the novel, and there is something of the attention-seeking Hetty in Molly, whose heart has also been if not entirely “shut up…against her fellow creatures”, then made wary by her mother’s departure on her seventh birthday. But it is in the book’s tone and taste that Eliot is most influential. A birthday gift for Molly of a chess set is indicative: “Everything about it – its small scale, its concealment and intricacy would delight…”

From Eliot, too, comes the drama of learning through suffering – both Molly and Andrew have overcome abandonment: Molly, the loss of her mother; Andrew, his brother, murdered by paramilitaries. But while Molly is unable to reconcile with her mother, Andrew eventually re-engages with his family, having “won through to some kind of moral knowledge”. What’s being described is progress rather than fundamental change, consonant with the old bourgeois view of independent identity. The narrator, for example, discovers in the case of Molly’s difficult brother, that personality, and the “disturbance” which beset it, are quite distinct: “distress lay over him like a grey veil, obscuring who and what he was, but not changing his essential self.”

Such ideas might not be out of place in a nineteenth century novel but they sit oddly in the middle of Madden’s exploration of modern identity. Her choice of characters – Andrew the TV presenter who “only really comes into his own when he is being filmed”; Molly, the actress; the playwright narrator; even a film star and fan – all point to some notion of performance. Despite several references to Wilde, though, Madden seems ill at ease in this territory. She makes various stabs at it – there’s a revelation of our “kaleidoscope” nature; a Heisenbergian notion that our relation to other people (or animals) changes them; and Andrew’s lecture on memorials and remembrance – but his uncertainty only muddies the water.

The problem is that Madden displays no grasp of the intellectual history of the self, nothing to suggest how we arrived at this self-conscious, self-infatuated present. (A gift-bearing “lost” granny who opens the book, and recurs as the fan at the end, is only gestural.) Anachronism leaks into the language, too. The narrator talks about “tosh”, but also warns Andrew, he “should get out more”. Moreover, people are always changing their tune, blood tends to be thicker than water, youth is invariably wasted on the young; indeed, originality is more uncommon than you might imagine. Against this, there is a defence of cliché: “Unlike many in my circle I think I have always understood the value of formulaic conversation and how it can make for real communication.” But banality needs to be more knowingly deployed if it is not to be simply deadening.

As the light drops (we will not be straying into Nighttown) we are back with the animals and two final symbols of the self’s artificiality and obscurity. The narrator looks at the fake cow Molly has placed at the bottom of her garden, whose presence has irritated her all day, and watches as a hedgehog, “Inscrutable, mysterious…disappeared into the shadows”. Over the ‘phone she tells Molly: the play isn’t going well; maybe she’ll write a novel. It’s a coy ending, but it can’t undo the sense that Madden’s subject, like the hedgehog scurrying out of sight, has got away from her.

This review first appeared under the title ‘One Day in June’, in the TLS, 22 & 29.8.08.

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