My rating: 4 stars
A grieving family is at the centre of One by One in the Darkness by Deirdre Madden, a book that paints an enlightening picture of Northern Irish society during the Troubles and leaves readers begging for more. The characters effortlessly come to life as the novel moves back and forth in time. The apparent normalcy of their daily lives is interspersed with moments of quiet, albeit raw, emotion. The final paragraphs are particularly harrowing.
In 1994, Cate is returning home to Northern Ireland with major news for her Catholic family. She works at a magazine in London and has two sisters – Helen, who is a solicitor specialised in terrorist cases, and Sally, a primary teacher. Their father was murdered a couple of years before. Since he was a Sinn Fein member, newspapers reported on his death almost as if it had been his fault.
Although all three sisters and their mother still haven’t overcome his death, it’s Helen who seems to be struggling the most. She is seeing David, a journalist whose father was also killed when he was on a van with an IRA member.
“Sometimes she felt that all she had was her grief, a grief she could scarcely bear.”
At first, a great mystery seems to be set up about why Cate is going back home. The reason why is, however, revealed early on without the story reaching a climax. This is not a plot-based book that intends to awe readers with impressive revelations. One by One in the Darkness is most of all the story of an average Northern Irish family. Learning about their past and present struggles is an absorbing and engrossing experience.
The very end and the beginning of the book are remarkable. While readers don’t have to wait long to learn what Cate is going through, it’s only due to the last paragraphs that we fully understand the events surrounding the death of the three sisters’ father. Thanks to an exquisite work of language, the narration of the way he was killed is heart-breaking. The first paragraph is equally haunting, but because of its touch of nostalgia.
“Home was a huge sky; it was flat fields of poor land fringed with hawthorn and alder. It was birds in flight; it was columns of midges like smoke in a summer dusk. It was grey water; it was a mad wind; it was a solid stone house where the silence was uncanny.”
Deirdre Madden is great at conveying emotions throughout the book. There’s an understated revolt constantly present, because of the brutality and discrimination that Catholics had to endure, which led to some of them responding with violence as well.
The decisions and present feelings of the characters are made easier to understand thanks to the chapters that are set in the past. There’s a slightly different tone to them. They are more innocent and purer. The tone also changes somewhat depending on the character that is being focused on, which helps readers to appreciate their personalities.
While reading, I could not help but wanting more from One by One in the Darkness. It falls short of perfection not because of what is on the pages, but because of what isn’t. The characters are so fascinating that not only did I want to know more details about their lives, but I was also left curious about what the future held for them.