Reading in the Dark is Seamus Deane’s first and only novel and reveals much about his background as a poet and academic: it is highly lyrical in tone and appears to be more a memoir than a work of fiction, although it is unclear how much is fictionalised. Deane shares characteristics with his unnamed protagonist as both grew up Catholic in Derry (Northern Ireland) during and following World War II. The novel tracks a boy’s upbringing from 1945-71 and centres around a painful and shameful secret in his family’s past which the boy comes to learn, and then hide. The choice to address this period in history is an interesting one as Deane consciously ends during the escalation of violence in Derry: the book cuts off two years into the Troubles (or rather, two years after the Battle of Bogside) and those years are only dealt with briefly, which means the major focus is on a time of underlying tension and suspicion rather than outright conflict. Catholics were a minority group in Northern Ireland and faced significant institutional and social discrimination: Deane does an excellent job in portraying how that operated, how it felt, and how people responded to it in their daily lives.
The novel is told through a series of vignettes, usually only a few pages long, ordered chronologically and labelled with a month, year, and a title. Although not quite short stories, they provide a series of snapshots into unconnected but related moments of the boy’s life and combine to give a sense of his upbringing. As the book reaches its climax they become more focused and concentrate specifically on the family secret which has built in importance since the beginning of the story. The strength of Deane’s writing lies in his ability to evoke the atmosphere and emotions of the period through deft turns of phrase. I initially found this off-putting as his early imagery feels forced and a little contrived and actually reminded me slightly of fellow Irishman Christopher Nolan’s Under the Eye of the Clock which is also written in a dense, poetical style (albeit Nolan’s book is more heavily laden with such techniques). However, I quite quickly adjusted to Deane’s voice and ended up finding it compelling.
Reading in the Dark is haunting in places due to the juxtaposition of the domesticity of its setting and the breadth of its significance. Deane is at once exploring individual family relationships, secrecy, and guilt as well as the wider socio-political context of being Catholic and nationalist. Deane frequently reminds us of these wider issues through his use of religious imagery and the political activism of many of the older generation of characters.
I can see that Reading in the Dark is a superbly crafted novel and is important in what it was exploring. Published two years before the Good Friday Agreement it was also contextually significant. I have no doubt that many who read this book will consider it thoroughly deserving of a Booker win. But it didn’t quite do it for me. Partly this is because the family mystery ends up a little too intricate and involving too many people to easily hold in one’s head for a short novel. And partly because I didn’t relate to the main character.
Reading the three main contenders of 1996 has been a really interesting experience and I am curious as to how the judges’ discussion played out. My order of preference would be Alias Grace, Last Orders, then Reading in the Dark. I spoke recently to my mother who has also read all three and had the reverse order. I’m left wondering if this explains what to many was an unexpected win for Last Orders (at least, unexpected in hindsight): prize winners come about through compromise on the panel and excellent and ambitious works often divide opinion. Perhaps Last Orders was simply the second choice for most judges. Ultimately though these rankings are a little meaningless: all three books have been excellent in their own way and all well worth my time. 1996 was a strong year and considering how pleasurable it was to consider some of the nominees, I shall be reviewing an entire year in the near future: 1998 and 2005 have caught my eye!