Excavating Ireland's Contemporary Heritage in Eilis Ni Dhuibhne's the Bray House

Article excerpt

Eilis Ni Dhuibhne's first novel, The Bray House (1990), is a futuristic, dystopian fantasy that envisages Ireland, Great Britain and most of Western Europe as laid waste by nuclear disaster sometime in the first decade of the twenty-first century. (2) Drawing on the traditionally male genre of the adventure story centred on a voyage of exploration and discovery, this novel reverses gender roles and makes a woman, the Swedish archaeologist Robin Lagerlof, both leader of the expedition and internal narrator. In the form of a log, the novel relates Robin and her team's trip over to Ireland across the North Sea on board The Saint Patrick: a trip they undertake two years after a massive explosion at a nuclear plant in Ballylumford, Northern Ireland, had provoked a speedy chain reaction that wiped out half of Western Europe. The group's objective is to carry out a rough survey and "estimate the extent of the damage from an archaeological point of view" (Ni Dhuibhne 1990: 117). (3) While expecting to dig up little more than "the debris of the Irish way of life" (70), under a mound Robin uncovers a Victorian terraced house, its facade intact and its interior miraculously free from dust and rubble, the Bray House of the title. Convinced as she is that her thorough investigation of this dwelling will provide invaluable materials for a micro-study of the, by now extinct, Irish way of life, and that her planned "Ireland Exhibition", to be held upon return, will afford her universal acclaim and recognition from her peers, Robin decides to carry out a full-scale excavation of the building.

Four chapters of the novel are devoted to Robin's meticulous report on the excavation and analysis of her findings. As Derek Hand contends, "Robin's report takes up the central position in the novel, acting as the fulcrum round which the rest of the narrative turns" (2000: 105). Written under the pretence of scientific neutrality, this report is meant to embody Robin's undisputable mastery of her object of study. Her log, in contrast, betrays her as a self-conscious, extremely subjective and manipulative narrator. Her colloquial style and conniving asides are uttered with an eye on her potential reader, whom she wants to seduce and win to her side, as in the following passage:

   The arrangement was, then, that Jenny and Karen should always work
   together, and that Karl and I would share the alternative stint.
   And this order would have continued for the duration of the voyage,
   had not Jenny, who occasionally gave proof of being less innocent
   than was customarily apparent, manipulated a change at a certain
   stage in the journey, and rescued Karl from my dangerous clutches
   (as she no doubt would have put it herself) (15-16).

As can be seen, Robin's log centres mostly on her constant skirmishes with her three subordinates--Karen, Jenny and Karl--, who all challenge her authority and resist her scheming and abusive tactics. Interspersed with her account of these incidents, comes information--always filtered through Robin's prejudiced mind--about the other characters' pasts, and, most importantly, Robin's memories of her own life: a life originally marked by abandonment and betrayal on the part of those adults she loved and trusted most, and then dedicated to the pursuit of her own interests and ambitions--at the cost, it should be added, of those who loved and trusted her.

Like most futuristic and science fiction stories, the narrative does not so much address the future as its contemporary times: that is, it displaces the present onto an apocalyptic future so as to bring out and criticise present-day social, cultural and political trends. In Derek Hand's words: "Ni Dhuibhne uses the elaborate device of a future expedition to Ireland as a means of contrasting an imagined future with the realities of the present moment, allowing the present to be considered as if it were the past: beyond the demands of being faithful to immediate lived experience in order that it may be observed with more objectivity" (2000: 106). …

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