First Published: 1996
Year of Publication for This Edition: 1997
Number of Pages: 246
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Sub-Genres: Historical fiction, Bildungsroman
Note: this post contains an affiliate link.
Reading in the Dark follows its young, unnamed narrator throughout his life in the Northern Irish city of Derry just before the Troubles. As the son of a working-class Catholic family, he already faces challenges that most boys his age would not usually meet. Soon, though, his life takes a much darker turn when his dying grandfather confesses to a crime committed decades earlier. Little by little, this boy begins to piece together the history that his family has tried for so long to keep hidden.
First of all, this book is beautifully written. Though he’s best-known in the States for his prose, Seamus Deane is also a prolific poet, and it shows in his fiction.
Fire was what I loved to hear of and to see. It transformed the grey air and streets, excited and exciting. When, in mid-August, to commemorate the Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady into heaven, the bonfires were lit at the foot of the sloping, parallel streets, against the stone wall above the Park, the night sky reddened around the rising furls of black tyre-smoke that exploded every so often in high soprano bursts of paraffined flame.
Chapter 2, pg. 31-32
The book is full of passage like this, where not even the small details of color or smell or sound are overlooked. It does its best to put you in the story’s time and place and immerse you in the narrator’s experience.
Second, this style of storytelling intrigues me. Rather than gives us one continuous narrative from beginning to end, Deane instead tells the story in brief vignettes from the narrator’s daily life. At first, you’re a little unsure of how all these pieces match up, but as the story goes on, the connections between one episode and the others become clearer. Our hero faces a similar task, having to piece together a family history that he’s only heard about in rumors, whispers, and last-minute deathbed confessions, so the almost fragmentary narrative pairs well with the story itself.
As for the plot, I’m afraid I wasn’t quite as wild about it as most other readers seem to be. At a point, the book consists mostly of the narrator’s own internal monologue as he tries to get straight in his head who knew what and when, and this sort of story just didn’t grab me. I know that puts me in a very small minority, and maybe someone in the comments could point out what I’m missing. I enjoyed the book, but it’s not necessarily something I’ll feel compelled to reread any time soon.
That’s not to say, though, that I’m not impressed by Deane’s talent as an author. I mentioned earlier how the book’s imagery reminds you of the fact that Deane is a poet; another way in which I think Reading in the Dark imitates poetry is the way in which every component of the narrative serves to reinforce the others. In a way, it’s hard to focus just on one particular aspect of the story—setting, atmosphere, characters, or what have you—because each is so closely related to the other. And then at the same time that all of these separate threads reinforce each other, they also all bring you back to the main idea that the book is trying to get across. I love how the whole novel hangs together so gracefully.
So, even though this book may not have been my ideal, it’s still a beautiful novel and one that I’m glad to have read. Stick around for next week’s post, when we wrap up Reading Ireland Month with one last book review.