(Serpent’s Tail, £10.99stg original paperback)
Denis Kehoe scored a palpable hit with Nights Beneath the Nation, his debut novel of three years ago, which oscillated between twin, interconnected narratives set respectively in 1950s and contemporary Dublin. This, his sophomore effort, employs a similar structural device, alternating between Angolan capital Luanda (mostly) in 2006-7, and Lisbon and Luanda from 1965 to 1977.
The near present-day portion concerns Ana de Castro, a 32-year-old woman raised in
her father Jose and stepmother Helena, who has been living in since late adolescence. Aware from an
early age that Helena was not her birth mother, she sets out on a pilgrimage to
Luanda, via Lisbon, during the Christmas/New Year holiday season, to locate the
woman her father had an affair with over thirty years previously. Armed only
with a faded photograph of two women, a name, Solange, and a vague notion that
this woman had been and possibly still is a nightclub singer, she stays with
her elder half-brother Tiago and his family, while pursuing these clues through
several contacts. Eventually, after an internet search and an e mail response
from Solagne, mother and long-lost daughter meet up. Dublin
The portion set in the past details Jose and Helena’s courtship and marriage in Lisbon, and their subsequent emigration from Salazar’s Portugal to then-Portuguese colony Angola. The ambivalence of both parties in the early stages of their relationship is subtly rendered: they weren’t exactly crazy about each other, but evidently got along well enough to think they could make a go of it. Of course, most of the atmospheric scenes from thirty or forty year ago can only be imaginative reconstruction or even pure conjecture on Ana’s part: Helena has died of breast cancer, and Jose, now elderly and retired in Lisbon, never gets to make a personal appearance. The accumulation of unanswered questions which persist past the terminal point of the narrative (for example, why would Helena consent to raise a child who was not her own, much less one who is the progeny of her philandering husband?) linger teasingly in the air, lending it a sense of unreality. True, real life doesn’t provide neat closure, but there are some obvious conversations Ana could have to help her on her quest and elucidate her understanding of her origins, which are never allowed to take place, maybe because they would tamper with the novel’s carefully manufactured mystery.
Perhaps inevitably, Ana’s discovery of the mother who had no hand in bringing her up, while it answers some questions, proves to be underwhelming. It dissolves in some banal and quotidian observations on romantic relationships between the two women, where they discuss the loss of self which accompanies the compromise necessary for all committed couplings.
Ana is a PhD student in Film Studies in Dublin, and teaches film in UCD and NCAD, and this professional background sanctions much use of film references. Indeed, the novel is drenched in them. It gives nothing away to say that the last two sentences of the book are: ‘The image turns to a freeze-frame. Frame after frame after frame, as the strip of celluloid film slips out of the projector.’ However, Ana’s constant casting of herself and her parents as screen idols can grow a little forced, and further contributes to that overriding impression of unreality.
The tropes of Postcolonial Studies are also well ventilated here, with Jose, who works as a publishing editor, thinking: ‘It’s Africa, Angola, Luanda they’re putting into the Portuguese…these young writers, moulding, manipulating the mother tongue to their own devices. Colonising, civilizing, the shiver of a thrill of a Luandino sentence, Kimbundu words, phrases skittering across history and time, taking their place on the pages of a book in another language. Sometimes he remembers, and sometimes he forgets, those writers who have been sent off to the prison camp of Tarrafal in Cape Verde, because of their political affiliations.’; and Solange later opining: ‘ “…all whites believe they are superior in a way, whether it’s in France or Portugal or the States. They still have that attitude, you know, even after all this time, even after everything that’s happened…But the truth is they just can’t imagine that other people see the world differently, that Africans don’t see it the way they do. That our reality, our way of being in this world, is different.” ’
But while there are many evocative descriptions of Luanda, and while there is much to admire here, overall the novel feels over-researched, or does not hide its research well enough. Thus, it lacks the stamp of experiential authenticity which informed Kehoe’s first novel. Hopefully he can recapture that more visceral spirit in the future, of which his undoubted talent is more than capable.
First published in The Sunday Independent.