An Irish boy’s death continues to haunt his family circle for 40 years in Hart’s elliptical, chimerical tale.
Like most of their compatriots in a country torn by dissension and shrunken by emigration, Tom and Sissy O’Hara have never had an easy time of it. But nothing in their lives has prepared them for the way their world shivers and contracts on the June day in 1962 when their son is killed in an accident. From that moment on, the couple’s principal business is survival. It’s a job they share with their daughter Olivia—second son Daragh is no more than a wraithlike walk-on—and, curiously, with Thomas Middlehoff, a German neighbor who’s settled in Leinster to retreat from his homeland and write on literary subjects. Beginning with Middlehoff, Hart (The Reconstructionist, 2001, etc.) presents narratives from his point of view, Olivia’s and Sissy’s. Despite Tom O’Hara’s heart-rending devotion to his wife, she sinks so deep in despondency that she’s eventually hospitalized, splintering her family and provoking Olivia’s resentment. Middlehoff, a sober widower of surprisingly delicate sensibility who clings to his own mistress as if to a life raft, is drawn closer to the family when Tom asks if he can buy an ornamental gate his son had admired. But it’s Olivia’s perspective that’s the most surprising. Years after her mother returns home, having “slipped behind the event and gone back to who she was before,” Olivia, now a highly regarded actress (“I stumbled into acting. It happens”), spins a skein of reminiscences that increasingly drift toward a chronicle of Ireland’s purgatorial generation of bombings, crackdowns, hunger strikes and tentative accords, blurring the line between her fierce, undying love for her brother and her equally troubled love for her country.
Focusing on the overwhelming question Olivia asks her Harley Street therapist—“What’s wrong with loving someone for life? Even when they are dead?”—Hart produces her least mannered, most moving novel to date.