Nationality: Northern Irish. Born: Belfast, Northern Ireland, 20 August 1960. Education: Trinity College, Dublin, B.A. 1983; University of East Anglia, M.A. 1985. Awards: Hennessy literary award, 1980; Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, 1987; Somerset Maugham award (Society of Authors), 1989. Agent: A. P. Watt Ltd., 20 John Street, London WC1N 2DR, England. Address: County Antrim, Northern Ireland.
Hidden Symptoms. Boston, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986.
The Birds of the Innocent Wood. London, Faber and Faber, 1988.
Remembering Light and Stone. Boston, Faber and Faber, 1992.
Nothing Is Black. London, Faber and Faber, 1994.
One by One in the Darkness. London, Faber and Faber, 1996.
Afterword, The Ante-Room by Kate O'Brien. New York, Penguin Books, 1990.
Contributor, First Fictions: Introduction 9. London, Faber and Faber, 1986.* * *
Deirdre Madden, born in 1960, is an important voice in Northern Irish writing. The winner of several literary awards, Madden in her novels examines the state of individual consciousness in the fragmented and confusing late-twentieth-century world. Her interest in how individuals discern their place in the world leads her to examine institutions that affect people's lives: religion, geography, politics (particularly in Northern Ireland), violence, and women's rights. All of her novels rely heavily on conversation; in the tradition of Elizabeth Bowen's fiction, Madden's work uses in-depth conversations to advance characters' understanding of themselves and each other while developing her themes for the reader.
Her first novel, Hidden Symptoms, offers an excellent introduction to life in Belfast. The title refers to Ulster before the renewal of violence broke out; it has always been "sick," but the symptoms only became visible with the violence. The main character, Theresa Cassidy, lost her twin brother Francis to sectarian violence. In her first exposition of an injustice she will return to in One by One in the Darkness, Madden makes clear that Francis was not politically active, but was singled out as a representative of his "tribe." The other main character is Robert McConville, a lapsed Catholic. Although he makes regular visits to his working-class sister and her family, he thinks that he has left behind his past to embrace an artistic and intellectual life; the novel (and Theresa) proclaim the impossibility of that goal. Conversations between Theresa and Robert develop most of the book's themes, and the principal importance of events is often the conversations they inspire. The baptism of Robert's niece prompts a long discussion of Theresa's religious faith. That faith is examined as a source of anguish to her, as she struggles to maintain her belief in a benevolent God and forgive those who killed her twin. Tellingly, Theresa uses "Christian" to mean Roman Catholic; she despises the Presbyterians and seems unaware of other Christian denominations. Madden's novel examines the inner lives of Theresa and Robert, but always reminds readers of how their options are limited by Belfast political/religious realities. Theresa explains to Robert why his agnosticism is a worthless evasion: "'there's a big difference between faith and tribal loyalty, and if you think that you can escape tribal loyalty in Belfast today you're betraying your people and fooling yourself."'
Madden's next novel, The Birds of the Innocent Wood, focuses on family relationships and sets aside much of the national context by refusing to name places: there is simply an unnamed "city" and a countryside with "farm" and "lough." While in some ways this decision universalizes the characters and their inner lives, at times it also makes them seem two-dimensional. Chapters represent varying characters' points of view, and the narrative is not structured in traditional chronological order. The Birds of the Innocent Wood is a very dark book about families and their secrets (the father has an unacknowledged illegitimate half-sister living next door, for example, and news of a twin's terminal illness is kept from her by her sister). Communication is fraught with difficulty; in contrast to the probing conversations found in other Madden novels, here the characters seem intent on deception, dishonesty, and concealment. This attitude is perhaps best summed up by one sister's perception that the diary of the other is "not by necessity honest" simply because it is written solely for herself. The novel's events include suicide, stillbirth, terminal illness, an affair that is revealed to be incestuous, and many instances of small cruelties.
Remembering Light and Stone focuses on a young Irish woman, Aisling, who has spent most of her adult life in Europe, first France and then Italy. She struggles to find her place in society. As an individual, she knows herself to be a solitary person but finds that all societies expect her to prefer family life; as an Irish woman, she ponders her and her country's place in Europe. This novel is very rooted in its time, incorporating references to contemporary political events (e.g., the destruction of the Berlin Wall) as a way of recording those significant historical moments but also to contextualize Aisling's exploration of her European identity. Although the novel appears to endorse derogatory stereotypes about Americans, it is an exchange between Aisling and her American lover, Ted, that best suggests the novel's picture of the interconnected fragments that make up contemporary culture: as they walk to a café for breakfast, Aisling decides not to point out a historical marker on the house where Dostoyevsky finished writing The Idiot in 1868 because it is "precious" to her and she is sure that Ted will not "share [her] appreciation." At breakfast, they talk about their grandmothers; on the way back to his flat, Ted points out the marker to her, exclaiming over its significance. This moment of accord represents a tapestry woven of diverse threads: an Irish woman and an American man viewing a plaque, in a country not their own, that commemorates a nineteenth-century novel written in Italy by a Russian. At novel's end, what Aisling has learned about herself allows her to return home to Ireland. On a visit there with Ted, she is overwhelmed by her response to the family home in Clare, now used only for holidays by her brother's family, and she decides to move back home.
Madden's next novel, Nothing Is Black, is set entirely in Ireland. Claire is an artist living in a cottage in rural Donegal; as a favor to her father, she consents to a summer-long visit from her cousin Nuala, who is having troubles following the death of her mother and the birth of her first child. Nuala and her husband Kevin run a very successful restaurant in Dublin; the concept—good Irish food—and the management are Nuala's but, ironically, she is indifferent to food. Another important character is Anna, a Dutch woman who summers in her Donegal cottage. All three of these women analyze their places in life; men appear briefly, or are remembered, but remain strictly minor players. Nuala is baffled by her own behavior, stealing things she does not want from restaurants, while Anna cannot understand her estrangement from her adult daughter. The women help each other in various ways and have long, searching conversations about life, but finally all must accept what Claire has been first to acknowledge: "the severe limits of one's understanding and abilities, the power of love and forgiveness; and that life was nothing if not mysterious."
One by One in the Darkness was shortlisted for the 1997 Orange prize for fiction. This novel is set in Belfast and the Northern Irish countryside, and its main characters are three sisters, Cate, Sally, and Helen Quinn. Cate is a glamorous journalist in London, unmarried and pregnant, home to tell her family the news; Sally lives at home with their mother and teaches at the primary school the sisters themselves attended; Helen is a lawyer in Belfast, where part of her practice is representing Catholics being tried for political crimes. The sisters grew up in the country, and were children when the Troubles began. Their father, Charlie, was a victim of its violence, murdered in their uncle's kitchen in full view of their aunt. His is the most obvious example of a phenomenon examined closely in the novel: how innocents are murdered but deemed guilty by association, assumed to be terrorists and thus deserving of their fate. The retrospective portions of the novel look at the early days of the Troubles and record important political events such as the early civil rights marches and the arrival and reception of the British troops. The main theme of the novel concerns the aftermath of the brutal sectarian violence: how can the survivors come to terms with what has happened? The Quinns' aunt and uncle remodel their kitchen, but they can never reclaim it from the murder that took place there; further, Cate finds that the new kitchen has erased some of her happy memories of earlier times. Other themes include the importance of the growing Catholic middle class (lawyers, doctors, teachers) and the role of women in Northern Irish society.
This novel, like Hidden Symptoms, argues that the parades of the marching season express openly the hatred everyone feels towards Catholics, but it expresses a broader verdict on the Northern violence. In the very early days of the Troubles, the family attends a funeral for a boy they all knew. He was blown up by his own bomb as he attempted to destroy an electricity pylon, and some IRA members make a militaristic display by the side of the grave. Leaving the funeral, Charlie Quinn tells his daughters: "'Never forget what you saw today; and never let anybody try to tell you that it was anything other than a life wasted, and lives destroyed."' Madden is at her best in One by One in the Darkness, examining the struggles of individuals to achieve their identity while at the same time appraising particular Northern Irish obstacles to a full and confident life. No less an authority than Seamus Heaney has said that Madden's "work always rings true," and readers can look forward to more Madden novels in the future.
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