I'll admit that I was originally attracted to Annie Coyle Martin's debut novel The Music of What Happens for reasons that are not entirely fair to her or her book. I had just finished reading Jamie O'Neill's At Swim Two Boys and found it zesty and full of life and literary sophistication; a little masterpiece. When I heard that there was another recent book that explored the same period¨WWI, the 1916 Rising, and its aftermath¨I began to think that this period in Irish history was undergoing a full-scale literary re-evaluation. And it's a good topic for such a re-evaluation; the end of the colonial era, the War for Independence, the Irish Civil War and the earliest days of the Irish Free State are important and complex periods in that country's history, periods that continue to mark its cultural life in all sorts of ways. It's time for the sharp, aesthetically ambitious minds that make up Ireland's corps of emerging writers to take on the period (Roddy Doyle did it with A Star Called Henry, of course, but it's tough to think of him as an emerging writer).
Alas, that is not what has happened here. There's some good writing in The Music of What Happens, and the book really does get moving in the last third or so, but overall it's a bit too soaked in sentimental evocations of well-hewn aspects of Irish life. Consider the following passage, early in the book: Angela Maguire has just died in childbirth, leaving a son Donny and two daughters, Una and Nan; their Aunt Emer will end up taking care of them. Una and Nan have the music-making and dancing of the neighbours, to go to sleep:
Una stirred in her sleep as Emer laid Nan beside her. She had been dreaming, making bread with her mother. The kitchen filled with golden light from the turf fire, Angela's arm snowy to the elbows. She winged her flour-filled hand over the board and whitened it, turned a broad slab of bubbly dough over on itself and punched it flat, then with the side of her hand measured off a portion for Una, and they worked together kneading the bread. No matter how Una tried to shape the dough, it turned into a baby. Half asleep, she heard the music and dancer's feet. She turned and took Nan lovingly into her arms.
I understand that Martin is trying here to explain how old-world communal festivity co-exists with the deeply conflicted emotions of family, here swinging between intense longing (the loss of the mother, the baby in the bread) and connection (taking Nan into her arms). And yet, this passage feels off; it's what might lazily be called "dreamy", but incorporates little of the fragmentation or confusion of dreams (or of the best dream-poetry). The image of the dough baby certainly sticks in your mind, but it feels forced; "the music and the dancer's feet" come out of nowhere, and land with a thud; "the golden light from the turf fire" is more part of nostalgia than memory. I highlight this passage because it comes early in the book and it sets its tone. I could find similar bits everywhere; consider one that comes at the end of the work: "Rural electrification, the very words were pure light, brightness, a glowing bulb in an inverted white saucer over Jack's work bench. Finn could just imagine it. To flip a switch and everything was lighted, the yard, the kitchen, the byre. Just like when his father took him to Athlone, to visit his aunts who had a pub" (p333). The wide-eyed-ness here is overwhelming, and the nanvitT of the prose style is only augmented by having this imagery spun from the point of view of a child. Martin's writing is sincere and strives for authenticity, and I respect that. But more often than not, what emerges is undisciplined.
That said, The Music of What Happens becomes considerably more interesting towards the end, when Peadar Maguire returns to Ireland from America, where he emigrated after his wife died. He had left the kids with their Aunt Emer and continued to send money home, so he hadn't exactly abandoned them. Nevertheless, he returns to a family and a country that he doesn't really know anymore, and an interesting paradox emerges. When he disembarks after the transatlantic journey "home", Martin writes that "[h]e noticed a shabbiness about the docks, a backward, old-fashioned, small look to everything compared to America" (p223). But later on, he feels just as uncomfortable when he comes to think that his family, now reasonably well-ensconced in lower-middle-class comfort, has outgrown him: "He had left his family peasants. . . now, by some metamorphosis, they were outpacing him, moving up, almost middle-class, planning for motorcars, for professions he had never dreamed of. While his mind was glad and proud of their success, his heart couldn't feel joy in it. It wasn't that he begrudged them their comfort, they worked hard enough, but there seemed to be no one with whom he could discuss the past" (pp234-5). Again, I'd say that the prose here is a little gooey ("his mind was glad and proud. . . his heart couldn't feel joy") but some really interesting insights about Irish life in the 1930s do emerge in this part of the narrative. I feel similarly about the subplot involving the youngest brother Donny dating a young Protestant woman, who tries and fails to get a job at the local library. And I like very much that this part of the narrative is set in 1937, the year that Ireland's first constitution was ratified, changing the country forever (and, many historians argue, institutionalizing a repressive Catholic conservatism and barely-concealed sectarianism embodied by that constitution's main framer, Eamon de Valera).
The reason given by the town council for not giving the Protestant woman the job is that she doesn't have sufficient command of Irish Gaelic (usually just called "Irish", the language that the 1937 constitution identified as the first official language of the country, even though the number of authentic native speakers was and remains quite small). While on the subject, it must be said that the book's attitude to Irish is very strange indeed. In the episode with Donny and his Protestant girlfriend, the language and the push to make it a requirement for the civil service in independent Ireland is clearly meant as a metaphor for the petty, exclusionary nationalism of the early State; Irish is still held by many to be an excuse on the part of reactionaries to try to return the fallen nation to its Gaelic splendour. And yet, the book is peppered with little snippets of Irish, bits that both shore up the folksiness of whatever is going on, and that are also often misspelled, sometimes on purpose, sometimes, I think, not. I'd be willing to accept that none of the words have any accent marks, which they don't in this book. But somehow, one of the most commonly seen Irish words, Garda or Gardaf (singular and plural for police) becomes Guarda and Guardi (I assume that this error stems from the fact that in Ireland, the police are usually known as "the guards", although "Garda" is emblazoned on every police car). Elsewhere, Una recalls how "one of the worst things about the convent is the food." Martin writes: "ŠIs mait an talan and t'ocoras. Hunger is good sauce,' Joseph says" (p227). That should be: "is maith an t-anlann an t-ocras." Elsewhere, when people are talking about banshees and the legendary c=iste bodhar (deaf coach) that is supposed to proceed them, one neighbour says that "you should sit with the old women if you want to tell stories like the seanacee" (p32). That should be seanchaf; I can't quite tell if the misspelling is intentional there. Indeed, there were bits of misspelled Irish in At Swim, Two Boys as well; "cara mo chrof," friend of my heart, became "cara macree," that sort of thing. But in Jamie O'Neill's work, this was an ironic part of an aesthetically sophisticated evocation of a politically and culturally conflicted period. Annie Coyle Martin just seems to be using these passages as a kind of folksy, nostalgic spice, and doing it not-very-carefully; sometimes, as Freud might have conceded, a misspelled word is just a misspelled word.
So finally, I feel the need to cling to my At Swim Two Boys comparison, if only because it helps illustrate how this book is part of a split in contemporary Irish literature. On one hand, there is in Ireland and her diaspora a group of ambitious, adventurous writers with an exhilarating grasp of language who are trying to find new ways to write about Irish life past and present, and who are part of the country's effort to find a new place in the world. On the other hand, in Ireland and her diaspora (Martin was born in Ireland but is now retired from the Ontario civil service) there are quieter, but also tamer writers trying to make sense of (sometimes only half-remembered) experience and descriptions of a country that doesn't really exist anymore, if it ever did. This split is not quite as simple as "progress vs. nostalgia", but it's close. And Annie Coyle Martin's debut novel, although it contains some interesting material, clearly puts her in the second camp. ˛
Jerry White teaches Film Studies at the University of Alberta and is President of the Canadian Association for Irish Studies.