Into The Grey
Launch 6 September 2011 Irish Writers’ Centre
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. It is a great pleasure to have been asked to say a few words about Into The Grey, this most fascinating book by Celine Kiernan, and I hope that what I have to say about it will whet your reading appetites, and that you will leave the room afterwards with at least one copy of it.
In January 1917, a young Englishman – he was in fact twenty-four years of age – wrote to his mother from the trenches of World War . ‘I can see no excuse,’ he said, ‘for deceiving you about these last four days. I have suffered seventh hell … We had a march of three miles over shelled road, then nearly three along a flooded trench. After that we came to where the trenches had been blown flat out and had to go over the top. It was, of course, dark, too dark, and the ground was not mud, not sloppy mud, but an octopus of sucking clay, three, four, five feet deep, relieved only by craters full of water.’
As I’m sure many of you have recognised, the young soldier who wrote these words and who was to die the following year, 1918, was Wilfred Owen, now regarded as one of the major poets of the 20th century. The words came back to me on several occasions as I read Celine’s book and, indeed, once or twice I also heard echoes of some of his poems in her descriptions of what was going on in those far-off battlefields.
One of Owen’s most famous comments on his own writing was, ‘All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true poets must be truthful.’ And, interestingly enough, there is a key chapter in Celine’s book simply called ‘The Truth’, in which the two principal strands of her narrative, although hinted at earlier, finally come explicitly together.
So what are these two strands and what links them?
Very often, when I was teaching literature – children’s or adults’ – to my third-level students I would challenge them when we had read a particular poem or play or novel: ‘Now, tell me in one word – repeat, in one word – what was that about?’ It is, of course, and absurdly reductionist way of looking at any example of great literature, trying to encapsulate its complexities in one word, but the approach has its merits in encouraging the reader to cut out all the fripperies and decorations and get to the heart of the writer’s matter.
It sometimes happens, of course, that we do not have to read too far into a novel before we begin to realise what its essential subject is going to be. In the case of Celine’s Into The Grey we have to proceed no further that its opening paragraph:
‘We were watching telly the night Nan burnt the house down. It was March 1974, and I was fifteen years of age. I thought I lost everything in that fire, but what did I know about loss? Nothing, that’s what. I would learn soon enough.’
The key motif of the novel is, as we might correctly guess, going to emerge as ‘loss’, a motif which is going to go much deeper than the loss, through fire, of a family home and its various bits and pieces. The fifteen-year-old boy whose opening words I have just quoted is Pat Finnerty, who, with his parents, his paternal grandmother Nan, his younger sister Dee and his twin brother Dominick, constitute the main characters of the novel’s 1974 world. And just let me say in passing how much I admire the subtlety and restraint with which that particular period in Ireland is evoked. I always have difficulty with the sort of novel where the writer, often in the name of ‘research’, has laboriously re-created a sense of place and period, resulting in writing drowning in tedious detail. In Celine’s case, by contrast, the detail (frequently alluding to the popular music of the time) is sharp and always made relevant. Even ABBA’s ‘Waterloo’ is made to have a function beyond its Eurovision origins.
At first sight, the Finnerty household is one of Irish ordinariness, beset by indications of the usual domestic and martial tensions, and characterised also by the extremely close and playful relationship which would seem to pertain between the fifteen-year-old twins, ‘stupid, happy ignorant boys’ as Pat refers to them at one point. But everything in the Finnerty family is going to change when, following the vividly described fire referred to in the book’s opening paragraph, they have to move house, to Skerries in fact, to a dwelling they have previously used as a holiday home. It is here, especially for the two teenagers, that present and past worlds begin to coalesce, whether in the form of dreams, nightmares, hauntings or strange (and quite frightening) apparitions.
As I’ve already implied, the principal focus of these ‘past worlds’ is on incidents from the first World War and on how some of the participants in that dreadful conflict, whether as survivors or as ghosts apparently rising from their graves, come to impinge on the existences and personalities of Pat and Dominick. The strength of the bond between the boys is going to be sorely tested when it becomes clear that Dominick’s very life is threatened by the presences, long dormant, which have now re-emerged: fraternal love and loyalties are explored here with great poignancy and, when and where appropriated, with some humour.
‘Yesterday morning,’ Pat records, ‘I’d had a brother. I’d had a best friend. He’d been fun. He’d been interesting: my slow-burn, articulate counterweight. Now I was lopsided, a boat with one paddle, rowing frantically and spinning in a slow, maddening circle around the space that should have been him.’
In her tracing of this ‘spinning’ and its ‘slow, maddening circle’, Celine’s storytelling skills are given full, imaginative scope.
Central to her technique is her obvious belief in the power of memory, a faculty which can simultaneously comfort and disturb. There is one particularly telling phrase, again in the chapter called ‘The Truth’, where the now elderly former Irish soldier, James Hueston, is described by the twins’ mother as ‘walking the private halls of his childhood’. Those episodes in Celine’s novel where various of her characters do indeed revisit their ‘childhood halls’ and haunts elevate her writing and its themes to a standard and give it a depth well beyond what we have come to expect in run-of-the-mill Irish young adult fiction. And given that this is a book full of ghosts or one sort or another, I feel I am using the word ‘haunts’ appropriately. As he watches events and memories unravel, our young narrator is, as he puts it, ‘freshly conscious of how utterly cruel life was’ and adds:
‘So. That’s how it happens. All the time. All over the world. People just fall away. There’s no warning, and you can’t do anything about it. No matter how old you get. You just lose people and lose people and lose them again, and you never get them back.’
We return to the ‘loss’ of Celine’s opening paragraph. Ladies and gentlemen, the literacy skills inherent in Celine’s first novel The Poison Throne and fully enhanced by the two remaining novels of her ‘Moorehawke Trilogy’ have now been further enriched by what, in my opinion, is her most impressive fiction to date. This is writing of an extremely high order, eloquent in its imagination and warm in its empathetic humanity. It evinces the author’s understanding of what has been the subject of great literature since time immemorial, with what in another of his poems Wilfred Owen called ‘the eternal reciprocity of tears’. I heartily recommend it to all readers of 14 and well beyond, and I wish it every possible success.