A few years ago I picked up a small beige book in a second-hand bookshop. It was a wartime edition so it was plain, simple and unadorned, but I picked it up because I had spotted the name of a Virago author Maura Laverty. I hadn’t read any of her books before, though I had the two that were reissued as Virago Modern Classics on my shelves, but I decided it was worth taking home.
Not long after that I picked up the first of those two green Viragos – Never No More – and I fell in love. I saved up the sequel for a while, but not so very long after that I fell in love with that sequel – No More Than Human – too. Those two books – and their lovely heroine, Delia Scully – became particular favourites.
That was the end of that particular story, but Reading Ireland Month, felt like the right time to read the third novel in my Maura Laverty collection.
It opens in 1928 in the Irish village of Tullynawlin, at a time when excitement was in the air.
“The Bohemian Concert Party, fresh from their successes in all the principal towns in Ireland, pledged themselves to appear in the Temple, Tullynawin, for two weeks, commencing June 3rd. Admission one and six, one shilling and ninepence. Children half-price”
“For weeks before they came, children saved their pennies, boys issued invitations, husbands were cajoled into making promises, and those who let lodgings scrubbed floors and aired sheets.”
Julia Dempsey was one of those landladies. She didn’t make much money from the players, but she loved to cook and entertain and so she was happy. It was said that she had been a cook in Dublin in her youth, before she came home to look after her aged parents, that she was a fine woman who could have had a fine job or a fine husband; but she chose to stay in Tullynawlin because she loved the place and she loved the people.
I loved Julia!
When she saw Mary, the daughter of her good friend Peggy Sheehy, talking with one of the players Julia was concerned. She was right to be concerned: Mary abandoned her childhood sweetheart when she was swept off her feet by Rowan O’Keefe. They ran away together, but they would not live happily ever after. It was not long before Mary found herself back in Tullynawlin, a widow with a young child.
Julia supported Mary as she re-established herself; going out to work while Peggy watched the shop and her little boy. But Julia was away, visiting another friend who was expecting her first child, when Peggy fell ill Mary struggled to cope, and because she couldn’t bear to leave her mother in an institution far from home, she accepted the offer of middle-aged businessman Johnny Dunne, to provide a home for her other and her son if only she would marry him.
Mary accepted his offer, but she would regret it when she found that her husband was jealous and controlling, when her mother died not long after their marriage, and when Denis Dunne, her childhood sweetheart came home from America and they found that there was still a spark between them.
Julia counselled Mary to tread carefully, but because she felt for her she helped the lovers to meet.
Both women knew that Johnny found out the consequences could be terrible.
Other stories weave in and out of this sad tale. Young lovers are separated when one takes action to support the Republican cause. Julia takes in the young daughter of a friend who has died and whose father is struggling to cope, and does what she can to bring the unhappy child out of herself.
All of this comes together in the end, and a chain of events will lead to a terrible tragedy.
This is an unhappy story, but it is made readable by Maura Laverty’s wonderful grasp of character and community, by the care she gives to the small details and the characters with smaller roles to play, and by the compassion and warmth in her writing.
She understands that word and actions have consequences; that lives have joys and sorrows; and that things are rarely black and white.
She drew me into Tullynawlin; she made me feel involved; she made me care about the people who lived there.
.I could even feel for Johnny, and realise what he was as he was, why he behaved as he did..
I have to say that the structure of this book is a little odd, but as a study of lives it is both moving and memorable.
There are so many details of character, of plat of dialogue that I could pull out to share; but there are so many of them and they are so well woven together that I can’t quite do it.
Maeve Binchy wrote introductions to the Virago editions of Maura Lavery’s novels, and in this book I saw that Maura Laverty influenced her writing. I’m also reminded that Maeve Binchy described Maura Laverty as a ‘food pornographer’. There’s a lovely chapter near the end of the story when Julia makes a cake she knows is very difficult to make perfectly because she understands how important it is for Teedy, the young girl she took in to have something really special on her birthday.
“”With a knife she loosened the spun sugar around the lower rim of the bowl. Very, very carefully she lifted off the feather-light mesh and put it over the flummery. It slipped into place, fitting as perfectly as the hull fits the hazel-nut. The creamy flummery showed through the web as the shoulders of a Spanish girl will gleam through a lace mantilla. Julia realised that the golden web was a complete success.. Only then did she look at Teedy.
The child stood before the blue dish as before an altar. Her face was pale and her dark eyes were enormous.
“Well Teedy? Do you like it love?”
The sensitive mouth worked, but Teedy did not speak. She made a little whimpering sound and rushed straight into Julia’s ready arms.”