THE TRUTH ABOUT LOVE by Josephine Hart

Book Quote:

“For love we’re asked to do the strangest things in life. Love! It asks the strangest sacrifices.”

Book Review:

Review by Doug Bruns (FEB 21, 2010)

What can one say about Irish writers? Deep into this book, here’s what Josephine Hart says: “A city that had produced Joyce and Beckett and Yeats, a country that produced poet-heroes and more priests and nuns per head of population than almost any on earth was not going to spawn boys who just wanted to stand before a packed hall of gyrating teenagers and strum their guitars and sing. They had to have a message. One of salvation; they were in it to save the world. Like I said, we’re teachers, missionaries.” And then, a few pages later, as a character summarizes a reading experience: “When I finished the book I thought, language–that’s his real subject, not history.” When you read sentences like these, in a book like this, you sense you’re on to something special. The Irish writers take themselves seriously. They are bent, as noted above, towards the mission–with style.

This is a story of tragedy. Might that not be the opposing force to love, the subject of the book? It begins with the death of a young boy, briefly told, as he expires, in first person. It is a backyard accident which takes him from his family. And it is related in haunting fragments, ebbing like the blood which is leaching the ground around him. Here’s how it begins, page one, moments after the accident, paragraph one: “…and the sky rolled, rolling over me, heavy light. And bright too. Is it bright? Yes. And I lift my face to the light and I am flying towards it but I cannot reach it. And now I am falling, hurtling fast to the ground. And now the ground is close, closer, rushing hard. Please? Not yet!” You can feel your pulse race as you step into the stream of narration, hoping against hope, not sure what you’re reading, but suspecting the worst. Then you know. And it hits you. Nabokov said that good writing makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. You will experience that sensation many times over reading this novel.

Good writing is wonderful, but as an end to itself, it’s just an exercise, albeit an exercise of the highest order. That is where the story telling comes in. This slim novel is a meditation on love in all its multifaceted forms. There is the love of a mother for lost–and surviving–children; the love of a husband for a wife; of neighbors for one another. But perhaps most of all, it is a novel about love of a place, Ireland, and a tradition. The narration turns on all this and is spoken principally through three crystal-like interwoven voices.

There is Sissy the boy’s mother. He is her second child lost and we follow her into the depths of depression, as she inches close to madness. She survives, not least of all because of the enduring love of her husband, Tom. “He thinks love, his love, can bring me back to life,” she tells us. “A man in love never gives up. Never. Tom O’Hara is certain he will not fail at this.” Tom is salt of the earth and loves his wife and his family. He is stable and certain and somber. He is broken over loss, but not so broken as to forsake his more damaged wife.

And there is Olivia, the boy’s sister. We follow her from the moment of the accident. (The boy was blown apart building a rocket, but this is Ireland and troubles abound. Young men make bombs too.) Olivia has interests beyond the village and the motherland. She is cosmopolitan, interested in poetry and intellectual traditions. She ultimately becomes an actress, but not before wrestling with the agony of loss and the challenges of adolescence. Of all the characters in the book, Olivia stands to define the modern Irish tradition born of a history of violence and horror and loss. Yet, she survives, even flourishes, as if symbolic of the tiger that once heralded from the Emerald Isle. But we now know that tiger made for higher ground and was soon lost to the mountains.

Most enigmatic is the third major voice of the novel, that of Thomas Middlehoff, “The German.” Middlehoff immigrated to Ireland in the 1960s. He is a chess-playing intellectual, a writer who has set upon the task of observing and ultimately writing about his neighbors, the Irish, who treat him with a suspect-tinged respect. Middlehoff is the non-Irishman scholar to whom we turn to better understand the degree of intensity of those about him. But Middlehoff is from elsewhere. He will never belong. That does not mean he cannot also have a love, of sorts. Middlehoff loves a woman married to another man, a woman for whom even this disciplined Teuton turns to mush, for that is the nature of his love. That is the truth of his love.

I’ve heard it said that the trouble with America is that there is no long sense of collective history. That is, our history is only that of a couple hundred years and is not defined by any one group or collection of people. Europe, is vastly different–and the Irish then some. The Truth About Love is about the love of people and land, villages and cultures, mothers and children. It is a love woven and bound by and for the other, the thing, the person, the place. These characters would not transfer across the country for a new job, or pick up and set out for parts unknown, just for the hell of it. They are too tied to their village, their land, the doctor that delivered your children and you. I can’t help but read this book–as too I sometimes feel reading Joyce and Yeats, in particular–and long for a sense of place that is deep and crowded and so twisted into my DNA as to ache. These people are bound by a sense of land and history that I think we, as Americans, find quaint, being the fresh upstarts that we are in the societal evolutionary ladder. Too, of particular interest to me is the question, suggested here, that the strength of bonds, one to the other, reflects the bond to the culture and the history. Not to read too much into all this, but might the inverse also be true? That without the deep sense of place that the oldest cultures feel, and its attendant implications those of us of the newer cultures also might lack the intensity to love to the same degree?

Regardless of those questions, it is a measure of this book that they arise. This is a wonderful book, written with a rare skill. That the canvas is so expansive belies the simple, pedestrian even, nature of the subject matter. Love. Everybody talks about it. But really, what is its truth?

AMAZON READER RATING: from 2 readers
PUBLISHER: Knopf (August 11, 2009)
REVIEWER: Doug Bruns


February 21, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , , ,  · Posted in: 2010 Favorites, Contemporary, Literary, World Lit

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