Book review: Time Present And Time Past by Deirdre Madden

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The new novel from Irish writer Deirdre Madden takes its title from the opening of TS Eliot’s Burnt Norton: “Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future, and time future contained in time past.”

Time Present And Time Past by Deirdre Madden

Faber & Faber, 224pp, £12.99

Those lines embody the sense of the continuous present in which we live, containing everything that’s gone before and the seeds of everything to come after. It’s an idea that most of us instinctively understand, but find our own experience of it hard to convey. The strange jumble of impressions, memories and imagination tumbling around our heads needs an artist to make them seem more than banal and obvious.

But Eliot’s poem goes on: “My words echo thus, in your mind. But to what purpose, disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves, I do not know.” And some readers of Time Present And Time Past may wonder the same, because this deceptively simple, short book is about everything and nothing.

The plot is hard to summarise: I feel for the person who had to write its blurb. The characters don’t do anything very dramatic within its pages, with the most significant event being a middle-aged brother and sister deciding to get back in touch with a cousin they haven’t seen for many years. They meet up and have a nice meal, resolving not to leave it so long next time. And though flashbacks and flashforwards are scattered throughout, nothing there is particularly sensational either: a hinted-at secret is sad, but not too hard to guess; the future for its characters is mostly okay, with a few normal difficulties; no one has a blinding revelation or sudden change of heart.

So a thriller, it’s not; yet it’s not at all boring either, because Madden’s precise, cool narrative is as condensed and rich as a stock cube, and there’s always a confidence that she knows exactly what she wants to convey.

The story links the narratives of several members of the Buckley family, living in Dublin just before the economic crash, over a few days. They are an ordinary family, which of course means that they are unique. Fintan, who is 47, a mildly successful lawyer and happily married with three children, is on the surface a completely conventional member of society. But underneath, he has odd thoughts: moments when he drifts off into a reverie and feels himself slipping out of his time and place.

He becomes intrigued by autochrome pictures, an early form of colour photography developed at the turn of the 20th century, which used potato starch filters to create the impression of colour through tiny blobs. Up close they are dots, but stand back and they make a realistic colour picture. It’s a nice metaphor, though Fintan’s interest in autochrome doesn’t really go very far and seems like a very convenient hook.

But the photographs serve to spark his thoughts about the past, just as recent TV series like World War II In Colour can do: black and white images fool us into thinking that “the past” and the people who lived there are somehow intrinsically different from our experience of the world. Fintan’s teenage son points out that his father’s own youth is now “the past”, particularly his memories of visiting relatives in the North during the Troubles and being stopped at checkpoints. For the young in Ireland now, it takes an effort to imagine living in that reality, even as the bank crash which will affect Fintan’s sons lives will later also pass into history.

Meanwhile, Fintan’s sister Martina, who lives with their aunt in a curious old house haunted by previous generations, is also thinking about the past and about the circumstances in which her life seemed to derail. For her, it’s a process of separating out what is truly past, how it has formed her, and what she is now. As in Madden’s previous book, the Orange Prize-shortlisted Molly Fox’s Birthday, there is a sense that places and objects have an almost tangible energy beyond their substance. Eventually Fintan and Martina revisit the location of a photograph and their different responses feel perfectly true to each of them.

The very ordinariness of the characters is surely deliberate: the book is not really about them, but an autochrome picture inviting us to explore our own memories. But their specificity of their experiences is carefully, lightly conveyed, touching on the way modern Ireland rests uneasily on its history.

This is a novel of ideas, but not in the showy way that phrase is sometimes used. There are no big discussions of philosophical concepts here and the pace will be too slow and thoughtful for some. But the book is beautifully written and gently invites us to consider the shifting patterns of time.