Date: June 23 2012
'Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.'' The opening lines of Anna Karenina could be applied to this examination of unhappiness in three different families in the days approaching Christmas 2005. We can place the date because in the one of the characters is attending the funeral of George Best and finds himself crying for a past that now seems as wasted as the talent of the dead footballer.
The mourner is Alan, newly divorced art teacher, whose former wife still calls on him for menial jobs around his former home and even more importantly for help in managing Jack, their sullen 16-year-old son. She wants him to take Jack to a Bob Dylan concert in Amsterdam, a city and a singer that, like Bestie, was also a significant part of Alan's youth.
In many ways, Amsterdam is almost a character in the story, as a place that opens people's eyes to the possibilities of life. Karen, a single mother working two menial jobs, will also, against her better judgment, be in the city on the same weekend for her daughter's hen party. So will married couple Marion and Richard, parents of grown-up children, she unsure of her husband's affection, he convinced that his wife is going through a crisis.
The three stories run in parallel, gently and accidentally touching in places but never intersecting in the way that the reader might anticipate. There is a minimum of dialogue, since conversations are mainly between family members not entirely at ease with each other; indeed, most of the resolution takes place inside people's heads. The result is writing that is intensely introspective; we get to understand the motives of the characters, their inner lives and fears. And although each family comes to a form of understanding, the reader will feel that their problems are far from resolved.
Marion and Richard will probably be the most successful of the three, though there will be a residue of doubt on both sides. Karen has yet to decide whether she will allow the man who abandoned her when she was three months pregnant to have a central role in their daughter's wedding, but it is doubtful if the mother-daughter relationship will survive. And in the final pages, we see an entirely new development which Alan will have to deal with.
Almost three stories in one, this is a wonderful examination of human relationships. The exposition is slow and deliberate, writing that pulls the reader up with surprising images: an ice rink where ''children and their parents scored and hissed the neon-coloured ice''; ''a blue shock of sky, white spotted with a snowfall of stars''; ''a slewed concertina of collapsed bicycles''.
Surprisingly, although all the characters come from Belfast, there is no reference to the troubled times they have all lived through; the story could as easily have been set in any peaceful city where loneliness, self-doubt and family betrayal are bigger problems than bombs or politics. Perhaps it is the very ordinariness of the characters, the believability of their problems that makes the book so engrossing. But add, too, the beautifully crafted prose by a writer at the top of his craft.
Frank O'Shea is a retired teacher.
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