Full Review by John Tague

A New Start in Finsbury
JOHN TAGUE
TLS

Philip Casey
THE WATER STAR
434pp. Picador. £14.99
0 330 37190 8

Philip Casey’s second novel, The Water Star, confronts the central Irish experience of the twentieth century: exile. It is distinguished by the finely wrought lyricism that has characterized much of his poetry. His first novel, The Fabulists (1994), won acclaim; his new one confirms that he is a writer with a gift for uncovering the tortuous impulses of his characters with a lucid and affecting eye.

Set in a post-war London still recovering from the Blitz, the novel follows the overlapping lives of five characters who inhabit the ruins of North London. Three – Brendan, his son Hugh and Sarah – are Irish; another, Karl, is German. Only Elizabeth, an East End girl who has moved north to escape the claustrophobia of her cramped family life, is English. All carry the marks of exile: disorientation and melancholy, a sense of rupture in their personal history and a relationship with the past which contains both longing and denial. Loss is the feeling they share: loss of homeland, and loss of family as the war has taken its toll. Cut off from home and family, each labours to reconstruct a new life on the ruins of the old, as Brendan, Hugh and Karl, all building workers, toil on the bomb-sites of Holloway and Finsbury to raise new buildings from the shattered wreckage of London.

Casey escorts his reader through the labyrinth of his characters’ minds, unpicking the jumbled mosaic of mourning, desire and fear. The German Karl, his family punished by the Nazis for harbouring a Jewish friend, is overwhelmed by distress when he recalls again and again the bomb attacks on his home town of Hamburg. His suffering eventually drives him to a lunatic asylum; his breakdown has been caused by the weight of the past. Casey’s descriptions of this process, and of the destruction of the German city, are finely evoked; in his reconstruction of the wartime attacks, the smell of smoke, the mortar and the panic are fully imagined.

The troubled relationship between Brendan and Hugh is also well handled. Casey has a feel for the bitter reality of the Irish exile. Rendered emotionally numb by the death of his wife, Brendan nurses dreams of a return to County Wexford. Hugh, spurned by his father’s inarticulacy and still mourning his dead mother, is so raw in his grief that one evening he imagines he sees her. A gauche, unconfident young man, he is both haunted and sustained by the idea of home, which he thinks of as his father’s small farm in the Wicklow hills. In the novel’s opening chapters, we see the harsh life of the two men renting a single room, labouring all hours on a building site to save enough money to return home. But Hugh, unlike his father, realizes that his only chance of survival is to move away from the past, and to put distance between himself and his heritage. He strikes out alone, leaving his father to establish his own life.

Despite its sombre tone, The Water Star is a novel about reconstruction; it tells how those severed from their roots reconnect and reconcile their atavistic impulses with their need to reach a settlement with the present. A structural weakness comes from its preoccupation with detail. The narrative is a lengthy roster of marriages, fallings out, childbirth, death and grief, which at times overwhelms the beauty of individual passages. But those fine intense moments – and there are many of them here – show Philip Casey to be a compelling writer. The Water Star is a bitter-sweet testimony to the never-ending struggle between exile and assimilation.

© TLS, May 21 1999


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