Hodder & Stoughton
Graham Norton’s debut novel Holding won deserved critical acclaim, with its fond explication of tiny rural communities, drenched in observational humour and featuring a whole host of flawed, sympathetic, wholly believable characters offset by the truly affecting stories and pathos that lie beneath the bumbling, slightly ridiculous surface. His follow up is unexpectedly quite different; if Holding was the gateway drug to Norton’s literary career, A Keeper is the Class A.
Elizabeth Keane has returned from her adopted home in New York to Buncarragh, a fictional town in the South East to take care of her late mother’s estate. Typically of those who have left their repressive, stifling childhood town behind, Elizabeth hopes that it will be a quick in-and-out trip, hopefully unencumbered by too many visits from her cousins, their glamorous spouses and an aunt and uncle who live comfortably above the hardware shop given to her mother’s brother on their own mother’s bequest. That Elizabeth’s mother was left the family home is a brittle bone of contention still, and her stubborn side wants to spend some time there to see if it’s worth keeping on, since she as an only child living abroad will have little use for it.
A sleepover in the house she used to call home dredges up feelings she hoped were buried; “Back in New York she had felt guilty for not missing her mother more, but in this house she felt her absence like a physical ache” and an effort to be close again to her mother, to understand her, brings her to a wardrobe in the master bedroom where she uncovers a box of letters written by, she presumes, the father absent her whole life, dead before she turned one.
This discovery marks the narrative transition from Elizabeth’s story to her mother’s, forty years before. We learn that she, Patricia, cared for her mother until her death, leaving her adrift at the age of 32. Her good friend encourages her to write a lonely hearts ad to The Farmer’s Journal, which is answered by a sweet sounding farmer from Cork by the name of Edward Foley. Pleasant letters are exchanged and a meeting in Cork city is arranged. Their encounter leaves a lot to be desired; in the place of the articulate and descriptive Edward of the letters is a withdrawn and monosyllabic man seemingly incapable of conversation.
Once home Patricia resolves to nip the budding relationship in the bud until a further letter arrives, tender and sincere, which persuades her to change her mind and accept his invitation for a visit to the family home. This visit is to prove life-changing, not to mention plot-altering, and what was at first a tentative tale of romance between two lonely figures beyond their prime becomes something much more complicated and sinister.
The chapters alternate between Patricia and Elizabeth, with the reader getting to grips with Patricia’s strange story as Elizabeth seeks to discover it. The narratives are aligned; both women are alone and lonely, both are grieving for their mothers and both have children they love beyond anything else. Elizabeth’s present day storyline is beset by a side story involving her son, his tutor and an illicit trip to California that is quite heavy-handed and has too much significance heaped upon it, but her journey to discover her parents’ story is nicely done.
A Keeper is not a funny book, nor is it meant to be, but it may come as a surprise to readers expecting it to be, and in that respect may suffer for it. It is dark, much darker than expected and its parallel stories complement each other by way of channelling an ingrained loneliness and otherness through the generations. Elizabeth’s mother’s story ends when she comes home to Buncarragh with her infant child, Elizabeth’s starts with the death of her mother. All that life in-between is suspected to be filled with an unerring sadness and disappointment that couldn’t be contained.
Norton’s wry humour isn’t completely absent, and the same talent for plotting evidenced in Holding is present in his latest effort, but in terms of tone and atmosphere A Keeper would be more akin to a family melancholy Irish writers tend to do so well. A difficult second novel it may be, but one that certainly inspires hope for what’s yet to come.
First published in The Tuam Herald on 24.10.18