Book review: Return of the epic

By Phoebe Falconer

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From Orange Prize shortlist to autochrome story, Deirdre Madden disappoints this time round. Photo / Mark Condren
From Orange Prize shortlist to autochrome story, Deirdre Madden disappoints this time round. Photo / Mark Condren

A little explanation to begin with. Autochrome photography was introduced at the turn of the 20th century. Red-orange, green and blue-violet dyed starch grains were painted on to glass, allowing light from the subject to filter through to the plate. This produced photographs of remarkable luminosity.

In Time Present And Time Past, Deirdre Madden takes her leading character, Fintan Buckley, through a journey of altered states of consciousness and auditory hallucinations as he discovers autochromes and the effect they have had on his past.

Buckley is a solicitor of no great note. He lives with his wife and three children in middle-class comfort in Dublin. He sees his sister Martina regularly, his permanently disappointed mother less so.

The discovery of an old autochrome photograph, the subject of which bears an uncanny resemblance to Martina, initiates in Buckley an interest in this type of art. As he delves deeper, he begins to have out-of-body experiences - flashbacks to his childhood, but also memories of periods of time he could not have knowledge of.

Meanwhile, Martina finds herself unearthing memories she would rather stayed hidden.

Madden has a delicate and compassionate touch when describing the problems Buckley encounters during his episodes. "Sometimes he feels like he has been caught in machinery; that his cuff has got trapped and he has been pulled in, so that now he is being minced and squeezed between rollers." She deftly details the relationships between Buckley and his wife Colette, Martina, his mother and her sister Beth.

But about three-quarters of the way through, Madden suddenly changes tack. Seemingly at random, she begins to describe the future for Buckley and his family, and also for Ireland as a nation. It's disconcerting and a little jarring.

And that's a pity, because up until then, I had really been enjoying the novel. It's gentle and easy to read, and the characters are original, likeable and credible.

Madden is an experienced novelist; her last book, Molly Fox's Birthday, was shortlisted for the Orange Prize. She teaches at Trinity College Dublin and is a member of the Irish Arts Academy.

It is therefore disappointing and somewhat surprising that she appears to have lost the plot in Time Present And Time Past.

Time Present and Time Past by Deirdre Madden (Faber & Faber $35)

- NZ Herald

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