I wonder whether everyone has a favourite type of novel? The kind that only requires you to read two sentences of the back cover before you take it to the till, or the kind that you thrill to recognize a mere two paragraphs into the action. Well, Molly Fox’s Birthday by Irish writer Deirdre Madden is most definitely this kind of book for me. I love contemplative first person narratives, in which nothing happens and yet everything of significance is profoundly altered. It’s the kind of book that needs to be beautifully written, psychologically astute and sensitively paced. Anita Brookner used to do it very well at the height of her powers. Gabriel Josipovici does it still, with brilliance. It takes a special kind of writer to pull off this sort of a narrative, and I’m delighted to add Deirdre Madden to the short list. Having read this novel, I’m going to have to read everything she has ever written and I think I’ll have a rare treat in store.
Molly Fox’s Birthday is narrated by an unnamed woman playwright who is Molly’s best friend. Molly herself is absent from the story, away in New York, and has offered her house to our narrator so that she may have some peace and comfort in which to get to grips with a recalcitrant new play. The action takes place over the course of the summer solstice, the longest day in the year and coincidentally the date of a birthday that Molly Fox never celebrates. With her friend so much in her mind and her play refusing to take shape, our narrator is lost to memories of the past and to speculation about who Molly Fox really is. Surrounded by her cherished possessions in her lovely house, informed by the anecdotal evidence of twenty year’s of friendship, she ought to have a ready answer, but the more she thinks about it, the more elusive and unknowable her friend becomes. There’s an added dimension of difficulty in that Molly is a celebrated actress, a famous and successful shape shifter, and someone who not only appreciates the gap between private and public personas, but who has manipulated it to professional acclaim. For Molly is a conundrum, an essentially shy person who keeps her secrets well, and who uses personal disclosure to unsettle and shock her audience into asking no more. And yet for all this, the narrator fears that Molly may have a gift of personal charisma, of magnetism, that she herself lacks, and whilst she loves Molly dearly her reminiscences are tinged with envy and insecurity and the uneasy sense that Molly has often insinuated herself into the lives of others she cares about, and succeeded in replacing her there.
The key case in point is her other close friend, Andrew, a man she met first at university, shortly before she met Molly, and who has managed to evolve beyond a dissatisfactory childhood to become a renowned art critic with a television show. Andrew grew up in the shadow of his lively, troublesome brother, Billy, until Billy, a loyalist paramilitary, was killed in the Troubles. This family tragedy, dismissed by him at the time, cast into the outer darkness of his life while he sought to define himself in new and better ways, returns repeatedly to the narrative as the story of Andrew’s life gradually unfolds. It turns out to be the piece of grit in the oyster, the sticking point, the curious loop in time to which he must continually return until he has uncovered its significance. ‘I hadn’t realized that such a tragedy wasn’t fixed in the past,’ the narrator writes, ‘but was an active, malignant thing, that changed and mutated over the years; and it never went away.’ And Molly has a similar relationship too, to her brother Fergus, a psychotically depressed and damaged man, whose illness Molly blames on an abandoning and emotionally withdrawn mother. The narrative continually probes away at these and other sore points, pushing memories against them to see what will unfold, what will be released by the act of examination. In both cases the narrator’s quest is to understand her friends completely, to assemble the fragments of their lives that she has shared and to put them together with coherence, and to see, most essentially of all, where she fits into their affections.
This novel masterfully explores its themes of love, friendship and identity, each new memory adding another layer of complexity onto the three protagonists. It is brilliant on the way that relationships are always a curious mix of intimacy and separation, of knowledge and mystery, and of fear and awe to the extent that they involve real love. At the heart of the novel lies an unresolved tension between the belief that we are to some extent stable in our selves, that we do have an essential core that never changes, and the uneasy recognition that empirical evidence points to the contrary, that we are all actors involved in a lengthy and risky process of self-construction. The context of the theatrical world is beautifully woven into this inquiry, as the narrator ponders the ways that art is more than willing to tell us the truth through artifice and fiction, whilst the real world – and this novel is full of objects, ornaments, mementos, family treasures, everyday groceries, all exquisitely described and displayed – taunts us with its enticing but silent materiality. The things we collect around us matter, this novel suggests, but the outside observer will never penetrate the enigmatic relationship between the owner and the cherished possession, however hard they try.
What I really loved about this novel, though, is quite hard to describe. What I particularly appreciated was the way that Deirdre Madden knows how to use what’s specific about the fictional world. We never lose sight of the fact that the events of the narrative take place over the course of one day, but that one day is stretched and expanded in all directions in order to incorporate the swarm of recollection and its attendant revelations. Only stories can bring together events that are disparate in space and time, and the collection of all these scenes from the past makes for a patchwork narrative of amazing richness. You may have to read it to get what I mean, but it makes the reflective human mind, with its resources of memory and imagination and insight, an extraordinary place to be. This is one of the best novels I’ve read this year, and a genuine literary achievement.