University College Dublin and Yale University
Molly Fox’s Birthday by Deirdre Madden
(Faber & Faber, 2008)
“It’s only life”
In this compact, intriguing novel, Deirdre Madden revisits themes that she addressed in an earlier one, Authenticity. Molly Fox’s Birthday also brings to life the artistic sensibility, artistic success, and artistic careers. The anonymous narrator, a playwright, here practises her craft as she “summons up people by thinking about them.” Drama stems from conflict, and amongst these exceptionally cultured characters, conflict is muted, but not absent. By withholding the narrator’s name, Madden is playing with the idea that her identity is bleached out by the two friends she summons, the two friends who fascinate her. Her fascination is shot through with the urge to choreograph how the protean Molly Fox, actor extraordinaire, and Andrew Forde, polished TV art historian, relate to her and to each other. The novel celebrates the magic of the theatre, where artifice is the means to achieve truth. In a lovely phrase, Madden describes how Molly, by enacting the emotion of an imaginary woman, the Duchess of Malfi, calls forth from the audience a real emotion: how, from her lonely stance on the stage, she achieves for the audience “a breaching of loneliness.”
“Things are not quite on the level,” Madden writes. Here, authenticity may be essential, but it is also elusive. The narrator’s is the voice that filters the world of the novel, makes us complicit with her version of events. Unreliable narrators first appeared in mystery tales, like The Moonstone and The Turn of the Screw. Madden’s book is set on a perfect Irish summer day, yet she deploys some of the same devices as Collins and James did, qualifying the narrator’s reliability by deft planting of tiny details, and holding the quality of surprise right to the end of the book. The narrator’s own artifice in construction of a self, of a history, cannot prevent the leakage of significant facts. These make her progressively more, not less, interesting and (giving the lie to her self-critical commentary) ultimately more interesting than either Molly or Andrew. Each of them has also constructed the self they present to the world.
In contrast, members of the large cheerful Northern Irish family from which the narrator springs have, apparently, little need of artifice. As a consequence, they seem less evolved. Yet authenticity can be found, even where there is little common ground, as the narrator shrewdly observes, “How important formulaic conversations are to the sustaining of affection.” One example of artifice, Andrew’s dropping of his Northern Irish accent, has significance for the relationship of Ireland with England, where accent is a proxy for class. The narrator does not say if she has done the same: it seems unlikely.
Madden makes skilful use of devices from classical drama, by keeping the action to the time frame of a single day (albeit the longest day of the year), by shifting into flashbacks, by interposing moments of discovery into her chronicle of time past. Scenes from time past are smoothly embedded in the main narrative, the present time of midsummer in Dublin. As she house-sits for Molly, the narrator struggles with writer’s block, traces key moments in the interlinking stories of herself, Molly and Andrew, from their jeunesse dore days at Trinity to their current celebrity. The two characters, born (like Madden herself) in Northern Ireland, illustrate and reflect on two versions of Northern Ireland families: a multi-generational bustling Catholic family, and a truncated, more reserved Protestant one. For the narrator, the ethic and the aesthetic don’t line up neatly in the difference between the two kinds of church.
At one point, the narrator wonders: “Who is Molly when she’s alone?” The closer she approaches to Molly, the more Molly seems to recede. The house, the garden, and her elegant possessions promise to unlock her essence. But these clues both reassure and unsettle. When the narrator breaks a jug, it heralds other disturbances.
Each of the three main characters has a deep relationship with a brother, relationships summed up in objects given as gifts. Madden excels in describing the gesture of someone holding a small intricate object, and underlining what it communicates. The narrator’s brother Father Tom (by far the most sophisticated of her siblings, not cramped by his round of mundane parish duties) gave Molly a small olivewood bowl from Jerusalem. Molly’s troubled brother Fergus gave her a miniature chess set. Andrew’s ambivalence about his loyalist paramilitary brother Billy and his Northern Ireland heritage shifts when the clumsy signet ring that came to him from Billy is transformed from something he dismissed as ugly and loaded with unhappy meaning, into a treasured moment.
It would spoil the enjoyment of the last third of the novel to say more than that, as in fairy-tales, the narrator receives three visitors, none of them expected. Each opening of the front door in its way disrupts the mood of the day, and counterpoints the memories she has wound and unwound. Each encounter functions as a discovery, forcing the narrator to revise her assumptions, and forcing readers to revise their assumptions about her story. Fergus, for instance, introduced as someone with serious psychiatric problems, is the character that most exemplifies authenticity, and paradoxically, has, against the odds, retained the most mature sense of self.
As the longest day draws to a close, the narrator moves away from the hall. This, of all rooms of the house, most strongly evokes Molly’s public life and success. The narrator achieves a wrap on the emotion that has surged up there. She attends to a simple end of evening ritual: the winding up of the long case clock, whose dark narrow wooden compartment seems to her ”to hold time itself”, the time of their past experience, as well as the time of the day that unfolded in the novel. Andrew’s comment “It’s only life” reaches to reconcile past and present. The final passage of the novel pulls the narrator back from her personal dilemmas by a deft opening to the strangeness, the randomness of the natural world.