I was delighted when Molly Fox’s Birthday appeared on the 2009 Orange Prize longlist.  The book had been languishing in the TBR for some months – ever since last year’s Edinburgh Book Festival in fact.  My TBR is now so huge that books have somehow to get themselves noticed all over again before I start reading them.  Anyway so Molly pushed her way to the top…. and I read the book last week.  Imagine my delight when the book appeared on the Orange Prize shortlist earlier today.  

Firstly,  a few words about that event at the Edinburgh Book Festival.  Obviously Madden was promoting the recently released Molly Fox, just as Lloyd Jones was promoting his new UK release, the name of which escapes me because it hasn’t escaped the shadow of Mister Pip.  Neither did the event.  The audience mostly attending to question Jones about Mister Pip and to get their 1st editions signed. (That would be me, then …)  And I think to a certain extent Madden was feeling somewhat subdued by it all.   But then again, it could be her natural modesty that held her back when she was talking about her own book.  For when she started commenting  about Mister Pip, extolling its plotting, the author’s control and its brilliance, her eyes lit up and she became positively exuberant.   Reverting back to her own novel and once again she became quiet and thoughtful, almost shy …

very much like Molly Fox, the exuberant brilliant actress but painfully shy individual, who really only has a walk-on flashback role in the novel which bears her name.  A novel set on the birthday she does not celebrate.  A novel told by an unnamed narrator whose main themes are identity, friendship, knowledge of another person.

friendship is only that, friendship. There are areas of reserve and distance, knowledge and experience that cannot be shared or entered into.”

The unnamed narrator, a successful playwright,  is staying in Molly’s house in Ireland, trying to overcome writer’s block.  Molly is not there.  She is working in New York.  It is her birthday – June 21 – the summer solstice, the day of most light.  How fitting that the reflections of the narrator turn to Molly in an attempt to understand her friend, to lay bare her friend’s soul.  By extension the same analysis is applied to her university friend, Andrew.  The irony is that in doing so she reveals more of herself than she realises. 

All three subjects are successful in their chosen careers, less so in their love lives.   Shadows are cast also by their families.  The narrator is embarrassed by her priestly brother but she is nowhere near as uncomfortable with her family background as Andrew and Molly: Andrew, with a brother murdered because of his paramilitary connections, suppressing memories, needing to reinvent himself; Molly, coping with a depressive sibling and the aftermath of that final celebrated birthday.  The absences of the families, however, exerting powerful influences that the characters may deny.

Sometimes the most important and powerful element is an absence, a lack, a burnished space in your mind that glows and aches as you try to fill it.

Like Madden, the prose is quiet and thoughtful.  Psychological layers are peeled back gently but the analysis is incisive and astute nonetheless.  The  pages are populated with many literary and symbolic references.  However, there’s not much exuberance in these pages – in fact, the bottle of champagne that is consumed is done so under duress.

He hauled it dripping from the chrome bucket; it was like an ice baby being born.

Let’s hope that for today Madden’s bottle has more bubbles in it than that.  In fact, just in case, she’s still being modest, let’s add some more fizz.  The novel is undoubtedly a slow burner, and I suspect, one that will get even better on second or even third readings.  This should stand it in good stead,  assuming the judges reread the shortlist prior to awarding the Orange Prize.  It is certainly good enough to win.  I’m rooting for it.

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