Full review by Erica Wagner

Washed ashore in a bomb-damaged land

THE WATER STAR
By Philip Casey
Picador, £14.99
ISBN 0 330 371 908

The water star is a reflection: imperfect, but beautiful in itself. Its darklit image shivers in a breath of wind, or is obscured by the observer’s shadow in the moon, but that mutability, that elusiveness, is part of its arresting mystery. Lean down too close to the pool and it will appear to vanish altogether.

Philip Casey’s second novel, The Water Star, works in the same way. Casey is a poet and a playwright; he has a poet’s delicate ear and a playwright’s eye for direction. The tale that unfolds in this thick, satisfying volume is not particularly complex – any more than the circumstances of any of our lives are complex, which is to say, infinitely and infinitesimally so. London, 1950: the city is a bomb site, a building site, and there is plenty of work for Brendan and Hugh Kinsella, natives of Co Wexford. Father and son, Brendan’s wife and Hugh’s mother Maire is dead, buried near the blue Irish mountain that haunts them in their grey London days, Croghan Kinsella.

The city separates them. Each longs for home, for the past, finds himself strange even when not among strangers. The London of Hugh’s imagination is nowhere to be found: “When he was a child, he had always thought that London had no hills. He remembered this as he walked up the incline of Tollington Park, past the large Protestant church and into Everleigh Street, where the Irish faithful were congregating. Hugh was perversely proud that his church had a corrugated iron roof, in contrast to its grand Protestant neighbour. No matter that Catholic churches in Ireland were of good stone and slate, the poverty of this one made him feel a cut above the Prods, morally speaking.” But when Hugh’s longing manifests itself in a vision of his dead mother, Brendan hides his own sense of loss in a fear of his son’s madness, and Hugh goes his own way.

He finds a home with Elizabeth Frampton, who takes him into her house and her bed. She has another lodger, Karl, a German, whose family was killed in Hamburg in the war. He manages his bereavement by carving their effigies as he sits in the garden – and by loving Elizabeth. When she takes to Hugh he is faced with another loss. Brendan, meanwhile, finds comfort after his son’s disappearance with Sarah, an Irish woman sent away from home when she became pregnant with her daughter Deirdre. Through the interweaving and the overlapping of these relationships, Casey examines how human nature is shaped by sorrow; how people will find a way – sometimes, it seems, despite themselves – to take comfort from others, to make homes where they can, even among the ruins.

Casey’s technique, too, is one of interweaving and overlapping. He will tell the same story more than once, each time from a different vantage point: Hugh’s own experience of his arrival at Elizabeth’s house and then Karl’s vision of the events. Of course, it is not the “same story” that’s told, which is precisely the point. As an idea in the abstract this might seem laboured; in the novel, however, it works seamlessly, simply functioning as it is meant to and unfolding the story like a fan. Karl works as a labourer, too; Elizabeth trusts he will find work for Hugh. As Hugh sees it: “Elizabeth glanced at him across the table. He had been watching a stray hair which had wandered from her well-brushed head. As their eyes met, she looked back again to Karl. “Can you fix a start for Hugh on Monday?” Karl sized him up. “If he’s willing to work hard. Brickie’s mate, Hugh.”

And then, as Karl perceives it: ˜Can you fix a start for Hugh on Monday?” She asked quietly. Of course. Elizabeth had but to ask, no matter what complication or indebtedness to those he despised that it might entail. It was against his interest, he knew simply by the way she spoke of the young man; but Elizabeth had made a request. He pretended to consider. “If he’s willing to work hard. Brickie’s mate, Hugh.”

This style, formal yet flexible, opens the novel out, and the different perspectives made these hardscrabble lives – death is a frequent visitor to this household and comfort too easily found in a bottle of wine or whiskey – vivid. Casey’s tale comes to the reader bearing praise from Sebastian Barry, and, like the author of The Steward of Christendom and The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, he has an unsentimental but affectionate view of Ireland and the Irish. His language is more austere than Barry’s; his characters aren’t given to speechifying and a large part of his skill is in the way he digs through their inarticulacy to find the real emotion beneath.

The Water Star is a graceful, gentle novel that does not shy from the truth. Is its metaphor of lives rebuilt from rubble – whether the detritus of the past or the structures shattered by the Blitz – too pat? Perhaps, sometimes. But reading along one finds oneself thinking, yes, but that’s just how things are. That seems a small thing, but it is a fine compliment to a work of fiction.

Erica Wagner
© The Times, London, April 8, 1999


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