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“Why did you leave Ireland”?

“I was sick,” he said. “I was sick of Ireland, he laughed.”

“Seriously Michael.”

“Seriously, if you knew anything about the country you wouldn’t ask me why I left.”

There is a moment towards the end of this book when the protagonist Katherine Procter walks down Grafton Street in Dublin late at night, crosses the Ha’Penny Bridge over the River Liffey, continues on towards Blackhall Place and finally reaches her destination of Carnew Street. I smirked to myself when I read this and remarked to Stephanie that you could tell this book was not set in the present day.

Eight months ago I was mugged at knife-point in Dublin. Every day after that I was scared to go out on to the streets at night. I desperately wanted to leave the city. The date of our departure for Australia seemed an eternity away.  When I think of Dublin now, that is what I remember, an unending, oppressive sense of fear. In a very real sense, I saw my travelling to Australia as escape.

Katherine is also looking to escape. Born and raised in Wexford, she has left her husband and child and fled to Spain. When she thinks of Ireland she remembers the dead relationship between Tom the man she married and her herself; her estranged son, who takes after his father in every respect; and finally she remembers the local people in the area who hated her family for being Anglo-Irish Protestants, who burned down her house when she was only a child. Her own mother left Ireland afterwards, terrified of the Irish and refusing to return from London. Now Katherine has followed in her foot-steps.

Barcelona is a world away from Enniscorthy. Katherine discovers an enclave of bohemian artists and begins to receive training in becoming a painter herself. She meets Miguel, an enigmatic man who uses art to frame the political upheaval in Spain following the Civil War and falls in love with him. Her mother sends her enough money to support herself and together with her new lover, she begins to reinvent herself, leaving her past as a member of the Irish landowner class behind.

The arrival of Irishman and Enniscorthy native Michael Graves in Barcelona puts Katherine on edge. Not only is he an insistent reminder of the life she ran away from, as a Roman Catholic he symbolises to her the same mob that attacked her home causing the breakup of her family when she was a child during ‘The Troubles’ in the South of Ireland. Furthermore he attaches himself to Katherine and Miguel from the moment they first meet him. She wakes up the first morning after encountering the Irishman to find him asleep beside her lover.

It appears that not only is her past not finished with her, but Miguel’s own history has caught up with the couple. He refuses to hide his anti-Francoist fervour, risking imprisonment. His status as a former revolutionary and a Catalan makes him a target for police intimidation. Katherine cannot understand why he insists on reliving his hatred for the Spanish fascist regime, why he cannot simply plan a future for them together. She slowly comes to recognize that Miguel’s wartime activities are not so different from the actions of the landless Catholics who attacked her family thirty years ago.

This is a beautifully written first novel by Colm Tóibín. The parallels drawn between the Irish and Spanish Civil Wars are cannily illustrated, with Katherine’s blinkered inability to recognize the hatreds of her own upbringing causing her to view the historical wounds of Spain as exotic curiosities. Tóibín’s writing is reminiscent of John Banville’s European Irish fiction, with protagonists finding inescapable echoes of Ireland on the Continent.

I strongly identified with Katherine as my own relationship with my homeland has become twisted by fear, despite knowing how irrational that feeling is. Funnily enough I continue to meet Michael Graves all over Sydney, the Irish accent reappearing at the oddest times. This is the life of an emigrant, I suppose, finding reminders of home wherever I go. More importantly though I am no longer afraid of returning home. Australia, and in part writing for this blog,  allowed me the opportunity to heal.

This book is beautifully observed, thematically insightful and ferries its haunted protagonists to a welcome peace of sorts.

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