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Ghost Story | RICHARD EDER

READING IN THE DARK.\o7 By Seamus Deane\f7 .\o7 Alfred A. Knopf: 272 pp., $23\f7

May 11, 1997|RICHARD EDER

It begins, puzzlingly, with a series of disconnected childhood memories from the 1940s in Derry, in Northern Ireland. The little boy's mother senses an invisible presence on the stair's landing and sobs inconsolably. An aunt tells a terribly frightening ghost story of a brother and sister who drive their nanny mad by exchanging features--hair, eyes, smile, even gender--with each other.

The kindly, mournful father, a shipyard worker, takes the boy and his brother for a seaside walk and points out a patch of turf overhanging the cliff's edge that the birds seem to avoid. It is, he says, "the land of the disappeared."

Less mistily, there is his glimpse of a neighbor run over by a van, a policeman vomiting while getting the body out and, later, the inevitable neighborhood rumor that it was the police who were driving the van. There is a violent standoff between the police and the Catholics on St. Patrick's Day, and fireworks and booming drums on the Protestant marching days.

There is the rough interrogation of the family after the boy sneaks a pistol out of his father's bureau and shows it to a friend. There is the mystery of why the father, whose long-vanished brother fought in the IRA, was not arrested for possessing the weapon.

These scenes and others make an initial blur, but it is the blur of a film developing. Gradually it takes on a fearful, unforgettable clarity. Northern Irish poet Seamus Deane devises as a fictional memoir "Reading in the Dark," the web of legend, secrecy and obsession with betrayal that choked and still chokes the history of his country.

It is the story of a Catholic family and its beleaguered community. It looks back to the 1920s and the beginning of Irish partition and leads up into the 1970s. In a larger sense, it is a story of the intractability of civil division, the crippling, ineradicable energies of defeat and the twin curse of too much remembering and too much silence.

These are devastations, but "Reading in the Dark" evokes them not as rhetoric but as the moth holes and rotted-out pieces in the fabric of one family's life. We would not be so enthralled and moved if Deane had not evoked the life itself with so much humanity, delicacy and fierce wit. Yeats' "terrible beauty," a cliche by now, could have been waiting for this near-magical book to arrive.

The darkest devastation in the family is its secrets. The book begins with ghosts and mysteries as a 6- or 7-year-old might apprehend them. It continues with an obstinate search for answers when the same boy achieves the fearsome lucidity and utter lack of caution of a 12-year-old. The search takes him up to 19 and 20, when, knowing the answers, he begins to know the moral and intellectual ambiguity to which all answers lead.

The family secrets are interlocked. First is that Eddie, the father's brother, was executed by his IRA companions as an informer back in 1922. The second is that it was the wife's father--the boy's grandfather--who ordered the execution. The third is that Eddie was the wrong man; the fourth is the identity of the real informer. The grandfather, dying, blurts these things out as the boy sits with him.

There is a fifth secret and a sixth. But this is enough disclosure, considering the choking urgency a reader shares with the boy as he pieces together other scraps and clues over the next few years.

The damage that half-destroys the mother, a brave and loyal woman, and the father, a man of simplicity and kindness, is not so much the secrets themselves as the fact that he knows only the first of them and she comes to know them all. She cannot bring herself to tell him about the tragic error, her father's role or the rest of it, out of dread that it will destroy their marriage.

Her compunction condemns her husband to think of his brother as a traitor. Silence is the killer. It sends her into a two-year breakdown from which she never entirely recovers; in him, it nurtures a perpetual, leaching pain. The tragedy is both personal and historical--it leaves us wondering what other reading in the dark is being done at this moment by some 12-year-old in Bosnia, for instance.

The beauty of Deane's lament--as is true of Frank McCourt's Irish childhood memoir, "Angela's Ashes," a lovely but smaller work--is that it is not told as such. The narrator speaks with all the vitality, the appetite for life and discovery and the pleasurable distractibility of his age. Those news shots of children playing soccer in some bombed-out ruin may spell tragedy, but the thunk of each kick is young nature's irrepressible high spirits.

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