Reading in the Dark: A Novel
Seamus Deane’s first novel is a mesmerizing story of childhood set against the violence of Northern Ireland in the 1940s and 1950s.
The boy narrator grows up haunted by a truth he both wants and does not want to discover. The matter: a deadly betrayal, unspoken and unspeakable, born of political enmity. As the boy listens through the silence that surrounds him, the truth spreads like a stain until it engulfs him and his family. And as he listens, and watches, the world of legend—the stone fort of Grianan, home of the warrior Fianna; the Field of the Disappeared, over which no gulls fly—reveals its transfixing reality. Meanwhile the real world of adulthood unfolds its secrets like a collection of folktales: the dead sister walking again; the lost uncle, Eddie, present on every page; the family house “as cunning and articulate as a labyrinth, closely designed, with someone sobbing at the heart of it.”
Seamus Deane has created a luminous tale about how childhood fear turns into fantasy and fantasy turns into fact. Breathtakingly sad but vibrant and unforgettable, Reading in the Dark is one of the finest books about growing up—in Ireland or anywhere—that has ever been written.
The Derry of poet Seamus Deane’s first novel, Reading in the Dark is a perilous place. Ghosts haunt the stairwells of apartment buildings, a curse follows two families down through the generations, close friends turn out to be police informers, and the police are as likely to persecute an innocent man as protect him. And hovering over all the violence, poverty, and despair of 1940s Northern Ireland is the specter of the “Troubles.” The hero of the novel is an unnamed young man whose life turns upside down when a policeman frames him. Deception becomes his only means of self-defense. But the initial lie on the part of the policeman and the narrator’s corresponding trickery are only part of the tangled web Deane weaves here. Early in the novel we learn that Uncle Eddie, an Irish Republican Army gunman, was blown up in the town distillery in 1922. In addition to sorting out his own problems, the narrator seeks the truth about his uncle’s death.
Reading in the Dark sounds grim, and in some respects it is, yet leavening is provided by infusions of the Irish folktales and legends that inform the characters’ daily life. And then there is the language. Deane is a poet, and his prose shows it: sex is like fire, “glinting with greed and danger”; ice snores and candles are swathed in a “thick drapery of wax.” Readers looking for a thoughtful, serious, and beautifully written novel will find one in Reading in the Dark.