Buzz: Second novel from the author of bestseller, and Irish Novel Prize winner, My Name Is Leon.
That feeling you sometimes get looking out to sea: a mix of calm and melancholy. Wistful, haunting; at peace. The Trick To Time captures all of those. It’s suffused with the feel of the sea. Shifting sands through an hourglass, emotional tides that rise and fall like a sigh. Only, in de Waal’s hands, it is also impossibly subtle.
The protagonist, Mona, grows up on the Irish coast and, as a child, escapes to the beach from the sadness, pressure and confusion of a dying mother: “...over the yielding dunes and down to the fringe of the Kilmore shore. Sand as soft as powder all around the curve of the bay.” When her father finds her there, he tells her: “‘one day, you will want these hours back, my girl. You will wonder how you lost them and you will want them back. There’s a trick to time.’”
The stretching and shifting of time and memory underpin the book, with currents of love and loss and longing. But on top of that, the writing is brisk and invigorating, full of a fresh and wonderful realism.
We meet Mona when she’s older; tentatively indulging a flirtation as she prepares to celebrate her 60th birthday. It’s one of the pure joys of this book to read such a vivid older character that defies stereotypes. Mona is funny, affectionate, sexual, self-conscious, uncertain and stylish. Complicated and unfinished in a way older people in books rarely are. She exudes a youthfulness at sixty that feels very real. Getting ready for her birthday dinner, there is not a cliche in sight:
“By seven she’s ready in black trousers with a good pair of heels and a white silk blouse with diamante at the neck. Hair up, earrings and a gold chain. Her tailored black jacket that still buttons at the waist and a suede clutch bag. At the mirror in the hall, Mona takes a deep breath and smiles at herself. ‘Come on now, girl! You’re not a bad-looking old stick at all!’”
As Mona tries to focus on her future, the narrative flashes back to her past. We meet both the child Mona, and the young woman - recently moved to land-locked Birmingham. There she meets a charming Irishman and, as the book blurb states: “They embark upon a passionate affair, a whirlwind marriage - before a sudden tragedy tears them apart.” Another refreshing realism is how this particular tragedy affects her husband, as well as her.
So many of the things I love about this book boil down to it’s realism. It makes me wonder how detached from real life everything else I’m reading must be, for it all to be so striking. The frank descriptions of simple female realities: “Her pad is soaked with blood and it chafes the tops of her legs.” The psychological truth of being frustrated when you can’t embrace the moment: “She should just get into the bloody spirit of things.” The way Mona herself never seems to grasp her own feelings and motivations that well, with the reader allowed to draw their own conclusions way before Mona reaches the same ones. And small town Britain is there in precise detail, from coffee snobbery to kebab shops.
That may sound mundane, but it’s far from it. The crystal clear details of the everyday provide the perfect counterpoint to the larger truths that can’t be pinned down. The gripping plot motors along with plenty of drama, but it’s the complex inner life of Mona that drives you forward, and it’s never fully spelled out, either for the reader or Mona herself. This is perhaps the most realistic point of all. As in our own lives, the most profound truths are always drifting just out of reach. Subtle shifts of atmosphere and passing impressions; just like that feeling of looking out to sea.
Published: Viking, 29th March 2018