Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Violent Shadows

Marion Urch Violent Shadows (1996)
About a year ago I started working my way through the diaries I've intermittently maintained since the age of twelve or thereabouts. Coming to those entries written whilst taking a degree at Maidstone College of Art, on Monday the 3rd of March, 1986 I wrote:

I am stunned at the laziness of other students supposed to be helping with the Events Week. Today I generally helped set up for Marion Urch who coincidentally knows Paul Bloomfield of Gwent who stayed at the Square during last year's Events Week. There isn't an awful lot to report. There was a disco in the evening but I didn't go.

Being thirty years ago, I had no actual memory of either this capitalised Events Week or its visiting contributors, so I had a look around on the internet - just out of curiosity - and found Marion Urch still in existence. She didn't remember me either, but curiously she too has since taken to writing novels, and Violent Shadows was her first.

This string of associations leading me to Violent Shadows is so tenuous that it may as well be a house brick randomly hurled from the top deck of a bus, but it's always good to read outside what you imagine to be your comfort zone, so here I am.

Violent Shadows is about Irish history and specifically about history as identity. It's also a Big House novel and therefore part of a tradition I had assumed to be pretty much over but for the occasional exercise in unit-shifting nostalgia - which just goes to show how much I know. It seems that the Big House has enjoyed something of a comeback in Irish literature, at least as of when this one came out, and Violent Shadows serves as a fine example of just what can be done with a genre one might assume to be somewhat limited by virtue of half the furniture having been laid out before we've even started. To be honest, I'd never even really considered the Big House to be a thing until I read this, or at least not a thing much beyond Jane Eyre - with which the parallels are surprisingly strong if not always directly pertinent.

Regarding the Big House, Johanna Lane has this to say:

It is in part the portrayal of the haves and have-nots that has made these novels less fashionable than they once were; our twenty-first century sensibility bristles at the social inequality they represent. Even if most of the families get their comeuppance by the end, their leisured lives are only possible because a multitude of servants scurry about to make them so. Often the servants live relatively miserable existences, with little time off and no home of their own; they are invisible, which is the most telling commentary of all. Mrs. Danvers, Manderley's housekeeper, is a rare exception. She has power, and when she loses it, she takes her revenge. More often, the servants are portrayed as desperately-loyal lifers, like Stevens, the butler in The Remains of the Day.

But the attraction of these novels is partly because the rhythms of life in great houses are so very different from the rhythms of our own: the characters linger over breakfast, they take long walks in the gardens, they stop for lunch, they stop again for afternoon tea, they talk to each other without constantly checking their iPhones... these books allow us to try on the past to see how it looked.

Urch uses the form to explore Ireland's relationship with itself, roughly speaking - a present very much defined by history, and in this case a history personified by Felix Clements, present-day heir to a stately ruin, a former residence of the English upper-classes as an occupying force. Tara, our principle player, develops a peculiar love-hate relationship with Clements, making of him a slightly bumbling Rochester to her Jane Eyre - I suppose, although the dynamic is as much akin to a huntress getting into the mind and persona of her quarry. Examining the pieces set about on the narrative board, this is one of those things which really could have gone horribly wrong, but is played so note-perfect and without recourse to sentiment or the tugging of heart strings, that not even the weirdest narrative twists - and some of them really are pretty odd on the face of things - can impinge on the novel's momentum.

As a novel concerned with Irish history, Violent Shadows is of course a novel with the troubles inextricably woven into its personality, explicitly manifest in the 1981 hunger strikes - detailed here with medical clarity; but rather than shocking readers into submission and screeching don't you think this is terrible?, Urch adopts what seems to me a more effective strategy in showing the larger horrors of the political environment through the human-scale lens of Tara's world, so the influence of the troubles is profoundly felt without requiring definition in full technicolour. Much of the novel, particularly in those passages where reality isn't quite tacked down at the edges, works as a variant on magic realism, leaving the greater, more terrible realities to operate as currents moving beneath the surface - if that makes any sense at all. Like the sun, much of that which is described here is possibly best understood by means of an indirect gaze.

In case I've failed to make it clear, Violent Shadows is a cracking book and astonishing as a first novel. The imagery of Urch's written word is rich, but never at the expense of that which it reveals.

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