When was the last time you read a novel and encountered a character who said, “I’m happy. Very, very happy”? Never? Fiction’s not expected to be about people who are content. If they’re happy, how can there be any conflict? And even if they’re happy, we certainly don’t expect them to be that way for very long. What a surprise, then, when a character says this at the conclusion of a novel, though it could just as easily have been said at the beginning. Deirdre Madden’s Time Present and Time Past shocks because of the complacency of its characters, their contentment, and especially their compassion and their delight in one another. In short, the book is pure joy and every bit as engaging as the most angst-ridden narrative we’ve read most of our lives. Madden has pulled off a major coup. Maybe she should be encouraged to go into politics and see if she can shape the political field as significantly as she has shaped the fictive one.
Of course, there are some minor worries. Fintan Buckley (“a strong contender for the title of ‘The Most Unimaginative Man in Ireland’”) believes that he’s suffering from some, odd obsession with past memories. His sister, Mirtina, fled London some years ago after a bitter encounter with a brutal lover. Brother and sister (both in their forties) don’t have much feeling for their widowed mother, Joan, but what they lack in affection for their mother, they feel for everyone else—especially Fintan’s wife, Colette, and three children and their Aunt Beth (Joan’s sister). And when they are all together, as a family, what could be better? Early in the story, after an evening meal, Madden remarks of that supposedly insignificant, common event: “Fintan had been brooding when he arrived back at the house, not quite glum, but in an odd frame of mind. Even at the end of the meal, it had to be said, asking them to sit for a moment, what was all that about? But he’d certainly been in a better mood at
the end of the dinner than he had been at the start, and there was nothing new in that. Colette knows that sitting around the table with his family is what Fintan likes best in life. He is contented and relaxed then as he is at no other time.”
We’ve been conditioned—by American novelists and, especially, by our playwrights—to regard the family dinner as a free-for-all, a slugfest, a setting for bloody warfare, but this cannot be said of Time Present and the Past. Food is served any number
of times in Madden’s story—in households and in restaurants—and the event is always presented in a positive moment. So what is the glue that holds this entire novel together?
Look no further than the title: time present and time past. Lucy, who is five or six and is Fintan and Colette’s youngest child, asks innocently, “Where does the past go?” It’s a philosophical question for which we’d all like to like to know the answer. It’s a question Martina muses about one night when she can’t sleep, thinking “about her own life: all the things she has done, all the things that have happened to her. Things that had been important at the time: possessions she had wanted, the attention of certain men; why, she can almost laugh at it now, so trivial and foolish do her past desires seem to her. Everything will be forgotten, everything.”
True, all will be forgotten, but Madden’s characters do not dwell on that reality any more than they do on the future. They live in the present and think well of one another. Even Fintan’s thoughts of his sons—who are both in their early twenties and should have moved out long ago—remind him that they have stayed in the house because they are clearly happy there. Fintan realizes that he had “longed to see the back of his sons [yet] he will find that he misses them terribly, once they are gone. He will particularly miss Rob, whom, as is the case with all his children, he loves dearly, even though he had frequently found him to be a smart-alecky little know-all…a view not incompatible with love.”
That’s about as generous a remark as possible—of course you can love someone in spite of their foibles and little annoyances. That’s what love is. And it is also a love which permeates virtually every scene in Deirdre Madden’s glowing narrative. So sit down and read this happy story of human generosity, of family love. It will provoke a smile on your face and, who knows, perhaps you’ll question your own relationships and begin to think more positively of those you have been wont to criticize. (I’m talking about myself here, too.)
Deirdre Madden: Time Present and Time Past
Europa, 161 pp., $16
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.