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Book Review : A Revolution With a Wee Pinch o' Soap

January 18, 1988|CAROLYN SEE

Fool's Sanctuary by Jennifer Johnston (Viking: $15.95; 132 pages)

This short novel is a political polemic cast in the form of a soap opera. The scene is "modern" Ireland: An upper class Irish woman lies dying, remembering scenes from her youth. Miranda (yes, the Shakespearean allusion must be intentional, and Ireland, here, an enchanted island) was the beloved and beautiful daughter in one of the great country houses owned by the scarce-as-hens-teeth Irish aristocracy. . . .

As the dying Miranda remembers it, her childhood home was an island of refinement and--sometimes--love. But her family was caught in a terrible cultural vise. Her own mother picked out French children's tunes on the piano, while her lower-class Irish nanny sang her to sleep with Gaelic lullabies.

As Miranda grew into adolescence, she found herself at the center of four men representing (all too conveniently) differing cultures, differing points-of-view, differing ways of coping with the absolutely unsolvable "Irish Question."

Scenes of Her Past

Again, remembering on her death bed, Miranda conjures up these scenes: Her father, part of the powerless Irish gentry, keeps planting trees in a kind of one-man land-reclamation project. Her brother, Andrew, a dislikable oaf, has gone off to join the English army, aligning himself with his oppressors--partly as a survival mechanism, partly because he has a murderous, mean streak.

When Andrew comes home for a visit, he brings a "friend," Harry Harrington--an Englishman of the "right sort," a civilized young fellow who's really sorry that for centuries the English have occupied Ireland, stolen its wealth, evicted its peasants, and so on, but what's a fellow to do? And, finally, there is Cathal, a man whose name used to be Charlie until he remembered he was Irish.

Cathal--just about Miranda's age--is, in a sense, another of Miranda's father's reclamation projects. The son of a servant, Cathal has been educated, has risen above his station and, because he has awaken to the political situation in Ireland, has joined the IRA.

Cathal is intense, handsome, brooding, you name it: he has every accouterment of the hero of a standard romance novel.

Naturally, Miranda is madly in love with this servant's son--who wouldn't be? Unfortunately, the romance of Cathal and Miranda is rendered a little less than eloquently.

Romantic Intentions

It's never properly laid out here what Miranda and Cathal intend to do, if and when they grow up. They just "frolic" and kiss a little bit, and walk on the beach like silhouettes on a bad greeting card or a TV car commercial: They just get to be "in love." But would Miranda's father really consent to his only daughter marrying a servant's son? We never get to find that out because other events intervene.

The time that these memories occur is just after World War I. The war in Ireland against the English is revving up. Cathal explains his position as an Irish revolutionary to the girl of his dreams: "We have to drive them out. They'll hang on here until we do that. They simply don't understand. . . . You understand that, don't you? You always seemed to understand. It has to be that way. It has to be war. . . ." Miranda answers as best she knows how: "You're as bad as father. You haven't noticed my hair."

So--again, in dying Miranda's memories--she puts on a pretty dress and there ensues a very unpleasant dinner party, where her mean brother torments her revolutionary boyfriend. Miranda plays the piano afterward, her well-meaning father drones on about his hopes for Ireland, the civilized Englishman falls in love with Miranda, and, yes, the lovely old Irish country house turns out to be indeed a "fool's sanctuary," because before this fateful night is fully over, there's a grisly political execution. Miranda turns out to be a spinster who lives a futile life, the lovely old house will soon fall into a stranger's hands and the Irish civil war goes on.

This book is for those readers preoccupied with the Irish question, but also only, I'm sorry to say, for those readers with a very high tolerance for cliche and the appurtenances of romantic novels. But hey! There could be a lot of readers out there answering that description, and for them "Fool's Sanctuary" might be just the ticket.

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