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Alice Falling

By William Wall

This is the first novel by an extensively published and award-winning poet and short story writer. It is doing something which badly needs to be done: giving the lie to the cosy consensus and public relations hype that everything in the New Ireland we hear so much about these days is fine and dandy. Rather, it boldly exposes the human cost of increased economic opportunities and material prosperity. That said, it is not a didactic tract, but does this by concentrating on telling the stories of a number of intertwined individual lives. Besides, anyone with Wall’s language skills, his ability to turn a phrase or capture an appropriate image, could not be accused of producing mere sociology.

Set in contemporary Cork, the narrative ebbs and flows impressionistically, between past and present, and first person and third person, as it slowly reveals the connections and disjunctions between the wide cast of characters. There’s Alice Lynch herself, of the title, who is haunted by memories of sexual abuse at the hands of parish priest Fr Bennis, which occurred when she was a vulnerable teenager whose father had died. She’s married to Paddy, a wheeler-dealer who runs his own software company, drives a Merc, and has share issues floating on the stock exchange. He married her because she reminded him of her elder sister, whom he used to go out with, but who died in a car crash. She married him to get away from her home, and from Bennis. She’s having a desultory affair with John, a postgraduate philosophy student. Paddy’s having a non-ritualistic sado-masochistic thing with Sandy, a chronic pain sufferer who works in the local art gallery. It’s run by Billy Cleary, her gay friend. Then there’s Mick, former county hurling champion who now works in insurance. He’s married to the highly unstable Nora, an old flame of Paddy’s, who confides her suicidal state of mind to John, who can’t help her. The are minor turns from Tim Bredin, a mercenary local artist who exhibits at the gallery, and Hennessy, who is what euphemistically used to be called, and still is in certain quarters for all I know, the ‘family’ doctor.

But this is not just another journey into idle, well-heeled, suburban adultery. It grapples head-on with the noxious underbelly of hurt, pain, anger, greed and hate which persists beneath respectable facades. From the opening scene, we know we’re in for a journey to the end of the night. Alice and John wake in his flat, to the sound of a car horn blowing outside, at five thirty in the morning:

The dawn belongs to lovers, and their early morning odyssey is

within his dispensation. God is a milkman, waving empties at

pale young men and women elated by their first taste of beauty,

going home to cold flats and empty houses. The Merc is evil.

That could be Paddy down there, foot-tapping the brake, hand

poised on the horn. Blow, Paddy, blow. Wake the lovers in

their beds. Wake the old men from their hard-won sleep, the

old women tossing in their pain, wake the children to another

watery day. This is your world. The lovers will learn that.

Sooner or later there will be a man in a suit. A banker. A lawyer.

A priest. A planning officer. All good things come to an end,

they say. Let’s face reality - decent profit, respectability, authority.

The hegemony of the club tie. Face up to it. And the lovers, the

old men, the women in their dressing gowns put out the empties

and take in the new milk, and they are powerless. God the Milkman

comes in the night and the only sign is the renewal of day. The man

in the Merc rules the world.

Of course, it turns out it is Paddy blowing his horn, after all.

Although not very plot-driven, the book does reach a devastating conclusion. Even the by now stock character of the abusive priest is excellently executed, his remembered wheedling in Alice’s mind hitting home. If, as William Gass wrote in his introduction to William Gaddis’ The Recognitions, the business of the novelist is ‘seeing through’, then William Wall has done his job effectively here. It is a story of the disaffection which sets in, after whatever idealism there may have been throughout late adolescent college years, in the search for emotional and financial security. It is populated by manipulators and the manipulated, exploiters and the exploited, abusers and the abused. But the roles are interchangeable, as victims become abusers, and abusers victims.

This is an important debut novel, by someone who could well go on to become an important novelist. It may not have the promotional budget of some more high profile recently published Irish novels, but that should not deter you from seeking it out and reading it.

First published in Books Ireland

 

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