Magazine article The Spectator

Blue Misremembered Hills

Magazine article The Spectator

Blue Misremembered Hills

Article excerpt

The Irish poet and novelist Dermot Healy has written his memoir. As we approach the end of the 20th century, this is beginning to look like a very ambitious and a very tricky thing to do. Not only have so many illustrious forebears gone down this path before, but we have become increasingly aware of the complexities inherent in providing an accurate narration of one's past.

Like a good modern, Healy knows the problems. He knows that the way we narrate our lives is closer to fiction than autobiography, that we are constantly spinning stories around the facts to the point where it is impossible to separate the two. The Bend for Home starts with the description of the author's birth. The doctor who attended his mother, despairing of a swift delivery, went to the pub, drank a few too many beers and then climbed into bed beside his mother for a drunken nap. Just as Healy has finished using his considerable narrative skill in convincing us of this, he reveals that it isn't actually how he was born, but only how he thought he was born until recently. `In fact, all this took place in a neighbour's house up the road,' the adult Healy tells us, though the story is clearly not irrelevant, given how long he had believed it to have been the truth about his birth.

Such anxieties about the unreliability of narration occasionally intrude on a story that is otherwise remarkable for its traditional feel. If the title wasn't otherwise employed, Healy's story could happily have been called Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. This is a classic coming of age story, filled with the usual suspects. The tale starts in Finea, a sleepy Westmeath village where Healy's father was a policeman, and then moves to the town of Cavan, where his mother and Auntie Maisie ran a cafe and bakery. It is full of family anecdotes, characters are often lightly caricatured and presented in a humorous, nostalgic way; the tone is at times alarmingly reminiscent of those Mr Kipling adverts:

Guard Healy kept an acre of cabbages and potatoes behind the house in Finea. For fertiliser he used waste from the outdoor toilet, manure from Jack Fitz's cattle and ass droppings. The crop he divided with the village. …

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