Josephine Hart has read and absorbed the best prose and poetry produced in Ireland over the last 200 years, because in her new novel, “The Truth About Love," she gives it back to us in a microburst, a whirlwind of sound and fury to match the emotions that created and sustained it.
Initially it’s a heady brew. “The Truth About Love” (Knopf) begins with the dying words of a teenage boy playing with chemicals that exploded with the force of a bomb. Written in an urgent stream of consciousness style that references James Joyce’s Molly Bloom, Hart’s young narrator unsettles more than seduces.
Was he building a bomb? Did it go wrong? Was his family to blame for teaching him about the horrors of Ireland’s past?
“Turn me over quickly! Don’t let Mama see me! Mama must not see!” says the dying boy, whose limbs have been blown off and whose last word is “dreams.”
Hearts fed on fantasy are capable of atrocious acts, Hart infers, and on every page of her searing new novel a tense conversation is held between the author and Irish history, between the awful past and the tense present, between one wrong and another wrong of equal force come to match it.
As the narrative progresses a personal family tragedy (the death of a child) is seen though the prism of his emotionally collapsing family and also through the prism of the wider public (the struggle for Irish independence). This mirroring effect – between public and private – is at the center of the book.
Irish history, Hart suggests, is both a briar patch and a labyrinth. Many good souls enter it -- all are marked -- and many are lost forever.
Fever dreams of a united Ireland are given short shift, too: “That lazy hazy love dream of a united Ireland, surely it would not trap us again in the prison of conviction, in the icy palace of obsession? No, the dream would come to us. It would all come true. Over the rainbow. Over the border. Someday. We couldn’t wait. We didn’t.”
It’s harrowing stuff this, tilting at the Republican hubris and mock-heroics that Hart clearly feels have characterized generations of the struggle for Irish independence.
Freedom, she knows, can come at a tremendous cost, and in “The Truth About Love” the question, over and over again, is what is worth it?
Throughout Hart is as unsparing of each character, as one imagines she must be of herself. This suspicion is underlined when each character’s voice in the novel is, sooner rather than later, overwhelmed by the voice of the author, left struggling to reassert themselves.
The overall effect is a little like listening to the musings of one immensely cultivated mind, in a decades old echo chamber where nothing is resolved, and nothing ends. The past chokes the life out of the present.
Hart is most famous for her 1991 novel Damage, which was made into a film starring Jeremy Irons. In “The Truth About Love” she meditates at length on human goodness, that mysterious force that endures in some brave souls after every trial and tribulation they have faced.
Where, she asks, does goodness come from? And what about love? How and why does it endure in the face of insurmountable suffering and loss?
“Will it come like a change in the weather?” the poet W.H Auden asks about love in the poem that supplies the novel’s title. “Will it’s greeting be courteous or rough? Will it alter my life altogether? O tell me “The Truth About Love”.”
Hart concludes that love, like goodness, is an impenetrable mystery, and that it exists at all, or that it endures, are to be marveled at.
In England Hart, who was born in Ireland, is also known as Lady Saatchi (she’s married to advertizing heir Maurice Saatchi). So she’s as familiar with the inner workings of the British establishment as she is with the forlorn hopes of working class Nationalists in council estates in West Belfast.
That ability to walk between two worlds has provided her with the ability to interpret between privacies, but time and again her own voice gets overwhelmed by the pull of the crowd.