Family Secrets

Reading in the Dark

by Seamus Deane
Knopf, 246 pp., $23.00


February 1945

On the stairs, there was a clear, plain silence.

It was a short staircase, fourteen steps in all, covered in lino from which the original pattern had been polished away to the point where it had the look of a faint memory. Eleven steps took you to the turn of the stairs where the cathedral and the sky always hung in the window frame. Three more steps took you on to the landing, about six feet long.

“Don’t move,” my mother said from the landing. “Don’t cross that window.”

I was on the tenth step, she was on the landing. I could have touched her. “There’s something between us. A shadow. Don’t move.”

I had no intention. I was enthralled. But I could see no shadow.

“There’s somebody there. Somebody unhappy. Go back down the stairs, son.”

I retreated one step. “How’ll you get down?”

“I’ll stay a while and it will go away.”

The opening page of Seamus Deane’s Reading in the Dark suggests, in its deliberate spareness, qualities which in the unfolding will more fully reveal themselves. It is a childhood experience, but the voice speaking across the years is poised and literary—“a plain silence,” “the look of a faint memory.” We learn that it is a working-class house—the staircase brief, the lino pattern rubbed away. It is a house across which shadows fall that may be supernatural, visitants. This is a culture, we soon learn, in which spirits are given a half-credulous, half-skeptical acceptance. “People with green eyes were close to the fairies, we were told; they were just there for a little while, looking for a human child they could take away.”

The novel’s short, crisp chapters, carefully dated and intricately linked by image, carry the narrator from childhood, in 1945, to the beginning phases, in 1968, of Northern Ireland’s most recent troubles. By then, what had earlier seemed emanations from another world have resolved themselves—perhaps too neatly—into occurrences of another kind, natural but just as sinister, as menacing to the minds of the living. Near the novel’s close, brusquely and almost as afterthought, the “Troubles” as we have known them from headlines and television enter the story: “We choked on CS gas fired by the army, saw or heard the explosions, the gunfire, the riots moving in close with their scrambled noises of glass breaking, flashing petrol-bombs, isolated shouts turning to a prolonged baying and the drilled smashing of batons on riot shields.” But it is not afterthought. Reading in the Dark, as might have been expected of its author, is a book centrally and subtly historical and political, and offers evidence that, at least in Northern Ireland, the political and the private are bound together.

This is his first novel, but Seamus Deane, who was a schoolmate in Derry City of Seamus Heaney and Brian Friel, has long been established as one of Ireland’s most challenging literary critics. His criticism, whether…

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