Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Tell you what - you have an apple

Book review from last Saturday's Indo

THE ADULTERESS Noelle Harrison (Macmillan, €17.15)
Saturday September 26 2009

Cavan is not often mistaken for a hotbed of illicit desire but in Noelle Harrison's The Adulteress it is the backdrop for infidelities and primitive passions that span three generations.

The trail of adultery also leads the narrative across the Irish Sea to Blitz-ridden London and to Milan.

For all this, and Harrison's own description of the book as an "erotic ghost story", those expecting a steamy bonkbuster will be disappointed. The ghost in question, June Fanning, is less seductive than comforting, filling the rural Cavan cottage of Nicholas Healy with the smell of freshly-baked apple pie and his ear with marital advice.

Nicholas has left behind an adulterous wife in Dublin, and is sinking into a mire of anger and loneliness in his self-imposed exile. His modern-day tale of betrayal and longing is intertwined with the history of June, an Englishwoman who came to live in his cottage in 1941 as her Irish husband decides to join the British war effort.

Harrison (who is English but has lived here for years) has a nice eye for emotive detail: June's sense of abandonment is perfectly captured by a pair of her departed husband's socks "screwed up into two little black balls on the floor".

At times though, the descriptive passages thwart the momentum of the book. And the incessant references to apples as a metaphor for lust and temptation can be wearying.

Harrison gives the reader something more subtle to chew on in her thoughtful take on the vagaries of the human heart. Adultery is not painted in black and white: this is no 'somebody done someone wrong' song. It might seem easier at first to empathise with June's gentle classics scholar father over her brittle temptress mother but the plot slowly peels away these impressions to reveal a more complex truth.

A cynic might see the peppering of the text with the legends of the ancient classics as an attempt to elevate the book above the niche of romantic fiction. In fact, the story of Julia Caesar, banished to an island for her politically-charged infidelity, has resonance in Harrison's depiction of adultery as a crime with victims on all sides. - Susan Daly

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