“One Irish family. Three decades. One dazzling story.”
Helen Cullen’s second novel is a family drama unlike any I have read before. Although it opens with a shocking, tragic event, the main action of the story unfurls slowly and beautifully, with stunning attention to detail. The author carefully builds up a picture of the protagonists Murtagh and Maeve Moone, from their student days in Dublin to their family life on the small island of Inis Óg.
As we move back in time to Murtagh and Maeve’s first meeting and watch their blossoming relationship, it is clear that these are characters we can root for. There is a tendency in contemporary fiction to create deeply problematic, unlikeable protagonists-as-antagonists, and I have to admit, it was a refreshing change to find myself falling deeply in love with the characters right from the start. Murtagh and Maeve are not perfect by any means, but they are self-aware enough to own up to their shortcomings, and they are both empathetic, compassionate people. To read about such characters at this specific time is a balm. (I will add that by this point I was already sufficiently enamoured with Cullen’s writing to immediately order her first novel, The Lost Letters of William Woolf, which I am very much looking forward to.)
I was particularly struck with the young Maeve’s level of understanding of her mental illness. For me, it worked well that at the point we meet Maeve, alongside Murtagh, she already has a series of strategies to cope with her anxiety and depression, the “crow” that settles on her shoulder and which takes on increasing importance in the novel. That she initially hides it from Murtagh adds credibility; she has accepted her illness, but is unsure whether others will be able to. Murtagh’s reaction when he finally learns the truth is depicted with outstanding sensitivity and accuracy: he is sympathetic, of course, but he cannot fully comprehend what he is being told, and he is sure that it can be ‘fixed’. As someone who has had to attempt to explain my own depression and anxiety to well-meaning friends and family, my heart broke for Maeve on many occasions in this book. There is no universal experience, of course, something Maeve herself expresses much more eloquently than I could, but for me, her struggles resonated as deeply authentic.
The move to Inis Óg allows Cullen to fully stretch her descriptive wings, painting achingly beautiful word-portraits of the island and the house that Murtagh and Maeve move into, so that Murtagh can take up his apprenticeship under the island’s resident potter. Cullen’s prose sings, and both the island’s rugged beauty and the cottage’s transformation under the Moones’ stewardship give ample opportunity to display the very best of her poetic sentences.
This book is packed with the tender ephemera of life, the objects surrounding us which we imbue with meaning, from the records Maeve, an American, has her mother ship over, to the pots Murtagh lovingly creates, to the beloved leopard print coat of their youngest daughter. The importance of things, not as materialistic symbols but as deeply sentimental items, is something Cullen captures better than any novelist I have read in recent times. Sitting now in our homes, with our belongings linking us to memories of happier times, this feels all the more profound.
As their family grows, the cloud that Maeve’s mental fragility casts over them all is explored with exquisitely painful realism. Holidays and days out are put in jeopardy; the teenage children endure taunts about their “mad Ma” and Murtagh steadfastly believes that better days are ahead, that the strength of their love and their family bond will save everything. Alongside this, other characters come into their lives, inhabitants of and visitors to the island, and each one adds another layer of meaning to the story. The children, Nollaig, Mossy, Dillon and Sive, are each nuanced and well-developed characters, their distinct personalities carrying echoes of their parents, but newly-shaped. The Moone family is utterly absorbing, and I was sad to say goodbye to them at the end of the novel.
Several times in the book, the Japanese art of kintsugi – the process in which broken ceramics are repaired with gold or silver lacquer – is referenced, and I was completely overjoyed to see that Cullen seems to have the same association of this work with the perfect Leonard Cohen lyric that pictures of kintsugi always call to my mind: There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in. I don’t think the author could have hit upon a more beautiful metaphor for what this book expresses. Indeed, Cullen’s novel is in itself a form of kintsugi – it broke my heart into pieces several times, but always made it whole again. The scars and cracks are where we find the beauty, and the dazzling truth.
Note: I received a proof copy from the author, to whom I offer many thanks. The above review is my own unbiased opinion.
The Truth Must Dazzle Gradually is available to pre-order from the following sites: