Saturday, 20 September 2014

The Goats are Singing - Fighting with Shadows

The Goats are Singing 
Fighting with Shadows, or Sciamachy - Dermot Healy

Fighting with Shadows, published in 1984, was Dermot Healy's first novel. It would be ten years before his second, A Goat's Song, hit the shelves. In many ways Fighting With Shadows has the mark of a first novel. It covers a huge amount of ground and seems almost overcome by all the things it has to say. However, it does say a lot and Healy's talent, already clear from his short stories, was confirmed by this novel.

The focus of the novel is on the Allen family, three generations of whom are featured. They are from the town of Fanacross, situated on the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland. The influence of the border is referred to on the first page: "The lorry-loads of watchful pigs descending the mountains by night to a slaughter house in the South. How the cattle get dizzy crossing the border for the grants in the North and back again for the grants in the South."
There is a mythic cast to Healy's use of the border. A drought in the south is linked to the deaths in the north, at least in the minds of the people in the dry midlands. "The hatred of the midlands people for those fighting in the North grew greater, for was it not those deaths that woke them with feverish temples and screaming children? One day the papers would say that no-one died. The next, they gave names of those that had perished. Down South, the weather gave no hint of rain. Herons glided along the rank garbage that filled the river beds. Whole areas of woods fell dead and here was the endless traffic of beetles drilling the bark dry. The inhabitants held their noses and never looked back where drowned dogs, trapped on the muttering river beds, had turned rancid yet still kept their teeth bared."

Memory, or consciousness seems to have merged reality and myth to create a symbolic world where realism and fantasy share the same sentence, parallel events yoked together as if they had a unified meaning, events such as Dutch Elm Disease described with an apocalyptic, medieval turn of phrase.  It's all shadows and intimations, dark uncertain currents flowing through peoples lives pulling them they know not where.

We meet Frank Allen in the South, although he hails from Fanacross. He is living in a rented caravan in a field with his wife and child. "Frank Allen found work at a flour mill convenient to the field, and though the work appeared permanent, still he continued to believe that no work would ever be again. Each home made way for a more temporary one. And when asked where he came from, he would reply; "Why, Fanacross. Fan Ocras, the end of hunger, surely." A man's skin is thinner than a woman's, and when a man panics he exaggerates his love and his loss. His imagination fills with things that have never been."

These characters have shallow roots in reality. They are rather ways to measure the currents dragging them around. We find that Frank Allen helped ensure that the border bridge at Fanacross wasn't blown up by swimming out to the middle struts and hanging on to them. He is briefly a hero but "His heroism passed. He was like an animal that had been imprisoned, then released into the night to be later refused by his own kind. He went about the village in red socks. An Innocent. But as the deaths multiplied throughout the province the people knew that innocence would be no forgiveness." The bridge, like many border crossings; roads and/or bridges, was to be blown up by British soldiers in an attempt to make the movement across the border of smugglers and terrorists more difficult. The action of the book moves to and fro over the border as well, and families, businesses and towns are changed by 'The Troubles" in subtle and dramatic ways.

The novel is subtitled Sciamachy, which translates as 'fighting with shadows' and which a dictionary tells me is used to mean "sham fighting for exercise or practice" or "argument or conflict with an imaginary opponent". Frank and his partner Helen spar with each other in their imaginations as much as in reality. They both try to tune in to the meaning of movements and gestures and inflections and I was never sure whether they were interpreting the other or justifying their own actions/feelings. Much like life.

The title, too, can be read as concerning the relationship between Healy and his characters. The characters are, of course, mere shadows but they are shadows of real events in Healy's own life, transformed into something else. One of the pleasure I have had re-reading The Bend for Home, Healy's unreliable yet generous memoir is that I keep spotting what I feel are the sparks of incidents in his fiction. The characters attempts to reach out to each other are like the attempts to create them. They are, to an extent, creating each other.

The borders that are crossed are not just political. Healy switches back in time and between characters and we have to catch on. Everything happens in the here and now, not memory but the stuff it's made from. It's as if he is interrogating the past; family; violence; failure; geography: asking how they pass on meaning; how they infect psychology and actions; how much of them we carry with us. Towards the end of the book, Frank Allen's brother George is in police custody and is being questioned. The prisoner and the policemen are described thus: "The interrogators and the prisoner await some understanding, like animals in separate cages watch each other for some movement that may return them to their previous natures. For their nature now is only made up of symbols. The gun, the drum, the pike, the flag, the fiord. The shape of the head. The accent." ... "They were looking for an opening into each other's psyche that was closed up centuries ago." It seems that some riddles have only violence as an answer: ""To get to my brain," he said, "you will have to shatter my forehead.""

Life in the North is a victim of history and every act of violence seems to add to the pressure for future violence. When a fishing boat discovers the body of a man who has been violently killed some of them want to dump the body back into the sea because of the revenge some will seek for the violence perpetuated on the corpse. They think of "the island adrift in an orgy of death". There are a number of deaths in the book, and all feed feelings of revenge and hatred. When Frank's sister in law, George's wife is killed in a hit and run George wanders the area trying to find a telltale dint on some car. Suspicion falls on a British Army jeep.

As well as the Unionist/Nationalist divide there is also a division between northern and southern. As George Allen tells his son "It's all talk with them. They don't give a shit about what's happening above." The South also embodies a perspective on the North:   "The South, a distorting mirror, lying face upwards towards the North." It is interesting to read in The Bend for Home that Healy spent much of his childhood in a home that had a huge mirror on one wall, and that the family would address each others image in the mirror rather than addressing each other directly, something visitors could find a little unnerving. In Banished Misfortune I felt that some of the stories took place in a very concrete world whereas others seemed to exist in the shadows. This is a strong element in Fighting With Shadows. At times it appears that some sections are almost discrete entities in themselves, that may well have started as short stories, or at least been written in much the same way as a short story. However they always have a connection to the undertow of the story. even if the connection is only revealed later on. The connections are not merely narrative, but thematic.

(Spoiler warning - the following paragraph includes a rough outline of the plot)

I am not saying, either, that there isn't a strong narrative because there is. The book is a concentrated saga. Frank and George Allen are twins. George loses his wife Geraldine to a hit and run. Frank is killed by gunmen, probably looking for George. Frank's son, Joseph, then leaves the North and goes to live with the elder Allen brother Tom, who runs a hotel in a town in the South. Frank's widow Helen stays in Fanacross with George and Geraldine's daughter Margaret, who we later find to be the illegitimate daughter of one of the waitresses in Tom's hotel. Helen is pursuing compensation for Frank's murder and this involves an investigation to see if he was involved in terrorist activity. There are many other elements in the book and further reveals. I don't think this information would spoil anyone's enjoyment of the book.

Tom is an interesting character. He inherits the hotel through his wife's family and borrows from the bank in order to modernise, a job that is done half-heartedly by Padjo the builder who becomes a drinking buddy of Tom's and a semi-permanent fixture in the hotel himself. Tom's drinking brings him to the edge of ruin but he stops just in time, but never losing his fear of failure.  "Manager Tom hung out by the diningroom door. His gimlet eye sharpened for meals undercharged to neighbouring families of the girls. For broken delph. For oversized portions. For business men who might steal by the pay desk. After any misdemeanour he would follow the bust waitress across the dining room so that her cheeks flared, through the swing doors, his tongue working like a weaver's shuttle, yet hardly speaking above an hysterical whisper, enquiring as to whether she thought "This was a half-way house?" And standing by the door, any sharp rattle of delph from the kitchen within made him wince and turn his knees inward and his eyes fill with terror of failure in business and mockery and bankruptcy." The hotel, too, will be affected by the Troubles, which it seems the Allen's cannot avoid.

Another strength of Healy's writing is the strength of his observations and makes great use of striking detail and atmospheric lists. A garden seen through a car window is imbued by a strange violence and an even stranger angel of protection: "Rhubarb bristling from the earth in a garden protected from the crows by a shorn fanned-out swan's wing." Farmers in the hotel on opening day become "Gargoyles, with puckered beards and smelling of their beasts.." Descriptions drip with earthy sensuality  "He watched her oval calves and lake spattered shins. How the catch of pike on a piece of gut swung against her thigh. Her warm, leavened thighs. The cups of lilies in her other hand swollen with colour and water."

And although the violence unleashed by history in the North is central to the book the straitjacketed thinking in the South also plays a part. Illegitimacy, emigration and abortion all play a key part, as encapsulated in this P.S. to a letter from Margaret to Joseph: "P.S. How is it that we leave our labour and our foetuses in England?" Healy is not afraid of difficult questions, of pointing out hypocrisy, even his own. A shadowy, shifting novel with a powerful undertow, Fighting With Shadows certainly marked Healy out as being a novelist of great range and depth, a promise he would fulfil in his next novel A Goat's Song.


  1. Great review. I haven't read anything Dermot Healy, but your piece really conveys a sense of his style and themes. I like the visceral nature of his prose in the passages you've quoted here - dripping with an earthy sensuality as you say. The different facets of the relationship between the two sides of the border sound very interesting.

    1. He's a fascinating writer Jacqui. I'm currently most of the way through reading his fiction including rereading two of his novels (A Goat's Song and Sudden Times) and his memoirs (A Bend for Home). I've splashed out on a couple of volumes of poetry as I want to get an idea of them also. I started with A Goat's Song and I guess that would be the one I would recommend to start with. It also deals with the border although in a more concrete way. Thanks for following these rather obscure series of posts.