Rarely does a paperback cover hint so atmospherically at a novel’s content as this one.  A middle-aged woman,  stands alone, staring out to sea.  Atmosphere in droves.  Loneliness …. desperation …. waste.

Waste?  It’s the psychology behind the red suit.  The woman wants to make a mark.  She wants to live.  She’s not ready to retire into the background.  She’s still has hope but she’s fading and not showing the best of judgement. She is a woman of a certain age and in the Belfast of the fifties derided by the less charitable as “mutton dressed as lamb”.  Which may well be true because the portrait Moore paints of her is, I feel, sympathetic, but not flattering. 

The novel opens as Judith moves into new furnished accommodation – a bedroom in a B&B.  She brings with her two cherished belongings: a picture of her great-aunt and an iconic Sacred Heart.  The former is placed on the mantelpiece, the latter above her bedhead.  Doing so, makes the room home.  It is the first hint that Judith has been on the move for a while.

At the lodgings she meets a variety of subsidiary characters.  All are memorable.  Her landlady and her son have a very unhealthy relationship.  There is another middle-aged spinster there – an absolute female dog (I do wish to keep this polite).  And there is Madden – the landlady’s brother, widowed, recently returned from the States ….

a man, available and with an aura of adventure (let’s face it there’s nothing adventurous in the Belfast that Moore paints).   Judith is the only one that finds Madden’s past fascinating.  She engages him in conversation and a friendship develops – a friendship, unfortunately based on wrong assumptions by both parties.  It would be a comedy of errors, if it wasn’t so tragic.  For both are, in separate ways, as desperate as each other.  Madden wants only a business partner, Judith wants much more – even though she knows that Madden is not an ideal catch and not good enough for her.  But she spent her marriageable years caring for her sick old aunt.  She didn’t get out much.  Incidentally those years coincided with the Second World War.  Now that her aunt is dead, so too are most of the men. Circumstance dictates that any man will do.

And so the crisis cometh and both succumb to their secret vices.

Interspersed with the “romance” is a more serious subtext.  That of Judith’s loneliness and the comfort/redemption she seeks in her Catholic faith. But the Church is unable to provide that which Judith needs and the dissolution of her relationship with Madden precipitates the dissolution of her faith – her crutch – her sanity? Yet, while the Church fails, a “friend”,  Moira practices a living, breathing christianity, extending a lifeline to Judith in her hour of crisis.  This is a bitter sweet pill for Judith who understands, with demoralising clarity,  that she has moved from the realms of friendship into those of charity.

Moore’s prose is lucid, direct and uncompromising and, I suspect, with regard to the religious themes,  heavily autobiographical.  I winced at times at the searing honesty of the dialogue.  There are no easy solutions.  Particularly heart-rending are the scenes depicting Judith’s tragic loss of faith; a faith which has kept her above sea level. Without it she will drown.

And so I return to the book cover.  I don’t remember such a scene.   Then again,  I may have been reading too quickly; despite the depressing subject matter, this is a pageturner. Moore is a master of pace.  Aspects of character are revealed in a measured, controlled and, at times, shocking way.  Neither Judith nor Madden are fully sympathetic characters yet I felt for them both. These characters live and breathe, jump off the page and punch me in the gut with their flawed humanity.  What more can I ask?

(Originally posted on TheMooreTheMerrier 1.12.2007)