Review: Kathleen MacMahon’s novel is full of beautiful prose, powerful metaphors and astute observations
Kathleen MacMahon, author of Nothing But Blue Sky, pictured at home in Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Review by Julia Kelly in The Irish Times
“Nothing coming” was a game David Dowling used to play with his brother on the beach in Rosslare. They’d lie on their bellies on the wet sand with their heads facing the beach and their feet just out of reach of the water. Then they would close their eyes and chant, “nothing coming, nothing coming, nothing coming” until a big wave came and crashed over them. The shock of it was always brand new.
The shock of unseen and unanticipated events is at the core of Kathleen MacMahon’s third novel. Set in a world regularly assailed by economic setbacks and man-made disasters from 9/11 to more recent terrorist attacks, an Irish recession, and most recently Brexit, Nothing But Blue Sky opens in the aftermath of a cataclysmic event that causes the death of David’s adored wife. The book describes his emergence from the sudden, slap-in-the-face shock of her loss, and themes of the fragility and the vagaries of life could equally apply to life as it is now while we live through this global pandemic.
The novel is full of beautiful prose, powerful metaphors and astute observations of human behaviour
Now that once inconceivable events are easier for all of us to imagine, scenes and descriptions throughout the novel seem eerily prescient: “I had a strange hum in my ears,” David says after his wife’s death, “like static in an empty radio studio: the sense that everything I thought I knew about the world now counted for nothing. I did not realise it then but we had just entered the age of the implausible”.
David works as a foreign news correspondent, as the author previously did. His wife, Mary Rose, whose name seemed to him to suggest a guarantee of a happy life, was one of those lucky people who didn’t suffer misfortune, whose life proceeded in an orderly and predictable fashion.
In contrast to David’s upbringing, in which his mother tolerated his bullying father and “bore his scorn with sad, unsurprised eyes, the way a battered dog bears a beating”, Mary Rose’s family genuinely liked each other and hugged and kissed when they met.
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The couple returned each year after their honeymoon to the hidden village of Aiguaclara, on the Costa Brava. Their favourite pastime on these breaks was to sit outside a cafe and watch strangers, guessing their names and professions, imagining their lives. And though it was unspoken at the time, this quiet curiosity about others was indicative of a more significant discontent that only became apparent in the aftermath of Mary Rose’s death.
She wanted children; David was indifferent, being perfectly happy as they were. When she failed to get pregnant he didn’t pay sufficient attention to the profound impact it had on her and he is now filled with guilt and regret.
The novel is full of beautiful prose, powerful metaphors and astute observations of human behaviour. It’s skilfully written with a wonderful lightness of touch. There is a perfectly described moment as David,watches a small child with Down’s syndrome playing quietly in the sand:
“There was a grace to her absorption that I found very compelling. It made me conscious of the extreme busyness of the world. The absurdity of our endless restlessness. I had a desire to sit, like her, sifting sand through my fingers for the sheer pleasure of it.”
The extraordinary coincidences towards the end of the book – the long-hidden consequences of David’s own past actions and his meeting a woman equally floored by grief, “even as she spoke, I saw a surge of desperation in her eyes and I knew that she was struggling to rise to the buoyancy of the occasion” – could be seen as a little incongruous. But again, read in a new reality where the unbelievable is happening and continues to happen, you wonder why not.
A slight niggle throughout is that the narrator’s voice feels female, but perhaps this is because David becomes more empathetic and more sensitive after his wife’s death; a posthumous lesson in learning to be a little more like Mary Rose. As is so often the case with those who suffer profound grief, David develops a new empathy; life becomes more meaningful. Changes, even devastating and abrupt ones, invariably make people stronger and at the same time more vulnerable.
Nothing But Blue Sky is an acutely observed portrait of a relationship and a story of survival, of endurance and ultimately of discovering that it is still possible to find some level of happiness in life after suffering.
In her closing lines, more fitting now than she could have known at the time, MacMahon writes: “How wonderful life is, and how sad, and how strange that it can be both of these things at the very same time.”
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Nothing But Blue Sky