Saturday, 30 June 2012

Review: A Wreath upon the Dead by Briege Duffaud

In amongst the broadly conventionally realist field of Northern Irish fiction, Briege Duffaud's debut novel stands out as a remarkable effort to use the novel form to demonstrate the fractious nature of the Troubles.

Published in 1993, prior to the end of the Troubles, it is perhaps unsurprising the content of the novel is bleak.  A novelist, Maureen Murphy, is attempting to tell the story of a pair of star-crossed lovers from her home town, an effort which is hindered both by the scarcity of evidence and the strong feelings the tale evokes.  Meanwhile the descendants of the original lovers are interacting once more in the context of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.

However such a cursory plot summary cannot do justice to Duffaud's work.  Told without any detached narrator, the novel intersperses documents (newspaper reports, diaries, sections of Maureen's novel) with stream-of-consciousness style outpourings from a range of characters.  In the original love-story,  set just prior to the Potato Famine, it becomes clear that Maureen's sources are in radical disagreement about just what happened.  Meanwhile in the contemporary story, the half-remembered myths and sectarian biases of the protagonists mean mutual understanding is impossible.

Duffaud's point in writing the novel is clearly that any account of history is partial, particularly in such a strongly divided environment as Northern Ireland.  However by giving voice to such a range of perspectives, without endorsing any of them, Duffaud suggests the means by which peace can come - mutual articulation of contradictory truths.

If the novel succeeds on this radical theoretical level, it simultaneously manages to be a rewarding read, albeit one which is unashamedly challenging.  The historical love story is perfectly balanced, attracting our sympathy while suspending our judgement, while the complicated drama of the modern day tale rings true in a way that a conventional narrative could not.  As noted, the tone tends towards the bleak, but that does not detract from the brilliantly flawed characters who make up this bizarrely fascinating version of Northern Ireland

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