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The New York Times Sunday Book Review: "An elegant, insightful meditation on the shifting forces of time and memory."

Date: Sep 5 2014

We spend our lives tumbling through time, carried along as it eddies and pools, buckles and loops, stutters and flies. As T. S. Eliot put it in the opening lines of “Burnt Norton,” “Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future, / And time future contained in time past.” We like to think that time is ours to waste, but it is we who pass through time, wasting only ourselves.


An elegant, insightful meditation on the shifting forces of time and memory, “Time Present and Time Past,” Deirdre ­Madden’s latest novel, centers on 47-year-old Fintan Buckley, a Dublin legal adviser and happily married father of three. Thoughtful and innocent, “faithful as Lassie,” Fintan has been feeling uneasy. The year is 2006, and the booming Irish economy is about to deflate, but that’s not the source of Fintan’s free-floating guilt and anxiety. Watching a clock’s second hand sweep round and round, he can feel “time racing on, racing like a palpitating heart, so that he feels his life will be over before he has had a chance to live it, certainly before he has had a chance to understand it. Sometimes he feels he can almost hear time rushing past him; it is like a kind of unholy wind.”


Gobsmacked by hints of the future and echoes of the past, Fintan begins to experience strange lapses of consciousness. Words and objects suddenly drift free of meaning: A slice of carrot cake morphs into an unspeakably bizarre orange-­flecked mound topped by “a hard, dark wrinkled thing that looks like the pickled brain of an elf” (that is to say, a walnut). Distant memories of childhood visits to his family in Northern Ireland during the Troubles rise up unbidden as he finds himself sliding helplessly between what was and what is. “The past,” as Faulkner wrote, “is never dead. It’s not even past.”


Madden’s cool prose style is quietly confident and sure-handed as she explores the inner lives of Fintan’s prickly mother, Joan; his kind wife, Colette; his troubled sister, Martina; and other members of his family. On the surface, this is an astutely observed domestic novel, but underneath deeper themes cut to the heart of what it means to be alive.


“When did the world become colored?” Fintan’s young daughter, Lucy, asked him once, as they were looking through some old black-and-white family photographs. Examining a book of early color snapshots from the 1900s with his teenage son, Niall, Fintan is struck by “how alarmingly familiar all these things look, exactly like eggs and biscuits, fish and flowers which he might come across on any day of his life.” Can a photograph — or a novel, for that matter — bring the past nearer? Can it stop time?


Seated at the dinner table one evening with his wife and children around him, Fintan suddenly asks everyone to freeze. “Bemused, they look at each other, but do as requested. For a short time they sit in silence, like worshiping Quakers waiting for the Spirit to move through the room. The kitchen clock ticks. Fintan looks at them all earnestly. Then he simply says, ‘Thank you,’ and stands up.”


Madden’s thoughtful, beautifully written novel is a reminder that we’d do best to acknowledge the fact that everything is always changing, and to savor what we can of those passing moments Eliot called the “still point of the turning world.”