Striking Irish Childhood

Right at the heart of Seamus Deane's extraordinary autobiographical novel Reading in the Dark, which was shortlisted for the British Booker Prize last year, is a chapter that offers a startling insight into the buried loyalties and the raw, seething grievances of Ireland's fractured northern province.

In a futile effort to uproot the family curse (there was an informer in the family), Deane's young protagonist desecrates his father's rose-bed, ripping up the stems and hacking away at the bushes with a pickax. In retaliation, the father concretes over the garden, hoping to smother the past in stone. But history cannot be so easily silenced.

"Walking on that concreted patch where the bushes had been," says Deane's boy-narrator, "was like walking on hot ground below which voices and roses were burning, burning."

"Reading in the Dark" is, essentially, the chronicle of a post-war Derry childhood, told within a time frame closely mirroring the author's own. Short, staccato chapters dance between formative adolescent events and miscellaneous gems of local lore such as a priest's cautionary tale of a penitent murderer and the story of a man who was struck dumb after an amorous encounter with a satanic fox.

As with the best of Deane's poetry, such personal, anecdotal details bloom ferociously into cold, brutal politics. The contrite murderer turns out to be the protagonist's grandfather, an IRA officer, who ordered the execution of Eddie, the boy's "informer" uncle. And the mute, now enshrined in apocryphal local superstition, is revealed to be the uncle's executioner, unable to speak again after his deed. "The man who had sex with the devil," comments the boy, sarcastically. "The man who killed my father's brother. All on the same night."

As troubles begin to flare up again in 1968, we find the protagonist's aged mother, incapacitated after a stroke, preparing to take her betrayals to the grave. Even after so many years, we can still feel the secrets of this tortured family and their violent, splintered country, smoldering beneath the page, scorching Deane's lapidary prose from the inside.

"Reading in the Dark" is as stubbornly meandering and unabashedly evocative as the first novel by an eminent poet should be. The language is radiant and resoundingly musical. The characters are beautifully crafted vessels storing unimaginable reservoirs of pain. But it is the sheer, exhilarating force of Deane's storytelling -- a rare quality in the poet turned prose writer -- that ultimately gives the book its inexorable power.

"Reading in the Dark," by Seamus Deane, Jonathan Cape, ?13.99 or $23, 233 pages.