Molly has escaped to New York prior to beginning her next project in London. The friends swap homes so that Molly has a place to stay in London and so that our narrator may begin to write a new play in fresh surroundings, as the writing is giving her some trouble. Realizing it is Molly's birthday leads her to remember Molly, their mutual friend Andrew who becomes an art historian, and other key people who make up their emotional and practical lives. The playwright also creates selves in her work, and in the absence of her friend and of any good ideas for a play she ponders who we are. Who we are to ourselves? Who we are to others? How do past events form us? How do our families? How does our nationality? Can we transform ourselves or is our identity inherently unchangeable? How, indeed, do our house and possessions inform us?
What kind of woman has a saffron quilt on her bed? Wears a white linen dressing gown? Keeps beside her bed a stack of gardening books? Stores all her clothes in a shabby antique wardrobe, with a mirror built into its door? Who is she when she is in this room, alone and unobserved, and in what way does that differ from the person she is when she is in a restaurant with friends or in rehearsal or engaging with members of the public? Who, in short, is Molly Fox?
I was reluctant to pursue this line of thought because I suddenly realised that, lying in my bed in London next week, she might do exactly the same thing to me. Given her particular gift she would be able to reconstruct me, to know me much better than I might wish myself to be known, especially by such a close friend.
'Can we ever know another?', this novel seems to ask. Is it as they know themselves? Is that pursuit worthwhile? The Irish novelist Deirdre Madden fashions a deep and beautiful book of these potentially abstract musings that is redolent with the pain of the distance we have from all others - even those we love most - and simultaneously rich with the rewards of the communion we can make through long acquaintance. One could examine the details of lives and their motivations so deeply that what one accomplishes amounts to dissection, leaving us with knowledge of these people in bits torn from each other. Somehow Madden tears apart muscle from bone and yet leaves us with insight into lives that is richer and more whole than when we began. She is particularly good at using the processes of the actor, writer, and arts scholar to reflect on the ways we can inhabit this inherent contradiction of knowing another, but the mechanisms are so integrated with the events of this narrative (if one can call them events) that it is difficult to reveal them without ruining your own reading of this book which is as slight in pages as it is long in humanity.
The greatest pleasure of reading this book is this sense of integrity, the life of the narrator and the work of Deirdre Madden seem inextricably fused. This may be an illusion or it may be fact but the important thing is that it feels true.
'Thanks awfully. It's a hot day.' I agreed and for a few moments we made small talk about the weather, about the solstice, about heat and light. He looked very like Molly, but Molly at her most nondescript, Molly as she was when she didn't want to be recognised and refused to project her personality. Fergus was incapable of that transformation that could make his sister such an electrifying presence on stage, and indeed in her private life, when she so desired. He was a small man, lightly built with brown hair and the same olive complexion as Molly. He reminded me of thing so much as a little wild bird, a sparrow or a dunnock, and in dealing with him I always felt I had to behave as if he were indeed such a creature. Anything sudden or abrupt would startle him; he needed stillness and calm, He took out a packet of cigarettes and lit a new one off the stub of the one he had just finished. 'Isn't the cow dreadful?' he remarked unexpectedly, indicating it with a toss of his head. 'I said to Molly, "What possessed you? It ruins the whole garden." But she just laughed.'In this passage, the description of Fergus is accomplished by Deirdre Madden the writer but seems like our narrator's private musing. The sentence 'I forgot to mention the voice,' could seem unnecessary, Madden could have edited it out and just described the voice, but the writer/narrator follows the flow as one thought breaks into the stream of another. Calling attention to this process doesn't remove me from the reading experience but, rather, pulls me deeper in as the thoughts are not cleaned up for me. I get the whole flow seemingly the way it came. This could be the way the narrative unfolded for the writer or it could be a deliberate creation, but once used in this published narrative it necessarily assumes an identity as artifice, and it is artifice of the best kind in that it helps me believe in the identity of someone who does not exist, the playwright - a character created by the writer Deirdre Madden.
I forgot to mention the voice. Like his sister, Fergus is blessed with a magically beautiful voice....
The subject of this narrative could, I suppose, be seen as indulgent. 'Oh, yawn, a writer writing about writing.' But its transparency is rendered gold by this seeming fusion of narrator and writer I have been going on about. I don't know if Madden herself was writing her way out of a dry period or if this is artifice too, but the narrator-character's creative process around beginning the creation of a new play is pitch-perfect. This is a period which, for many creators of art, is frought with tangential thought and a period of collection during which one must be patient and not fritter away the good stuff by talking about nascent ideas and then, when one notion alights on the brain with the delicacy of a grasshopper landing on a leaf, one must follow that notion with greedy energy to make sure that it doesn't escape and then, often, we hit a point where the effort seems to produce an inevitable path and the words, dance, music, painting flows. But prior to that conception, a new beginning can often seem unobtainable. We are sure it will never happen again.
I had a dual awareness of writer-character and writer-creator converging and diverging as I read. They converge perfectly for the experiential reader while they diverged for the part of me that analyzes artistic structure and process. This plays with the separateness and fusion between selves that is the subject matter of this novel and simultaneously with the integration of artifice and narrative that are the engine of this novel. The result is a powerful work of art with an undisturbable sense of wholeness. I finished Molly Fox's Birthday only last week (thank you dovegreyreader for leading me to this book) and already I want to read it again. While in England I bought two more copies to give to friends and picked up Deirdre Madden's earlier novel One by One in the Darkness and read that too (my thoughts on that one are here). It is rare that I add books to my favorites list, this one is going right up there.