Deirdre Madden’s Time Present and Time Past is a quiet, moving novel about the constant presence of time and memory in the lives of two Irish siblings. For once this is not a dysfunctional family, and what a refreshing change it is to read about people who have differences but who still maintain (mostly) healthy relationships in spite of opinions and past history. I’ll get to the one testy relationship later, and it’s by far the best of this excellent novel.
The issue of time appears constantly throughout the novel, and with one exception, it’s never overdone. The characters are members of a Dublin family: middle-aged Fintan Buckley, his wife, Colette, their three children, Fintan’s sister, Martina, Aunt Beth, and Fintan’s irascible mother, Joan. While not a great deal happens in the novel in terms of dramatic plot, instead this is a novel in which memories of the past are in the present as we follow our characters through their daily lives.
The novel begins with this passage:
Where does it all begin? Perhaps here, in Baggot Street, on the first floor of one of Dublin’s finest restaurants on a day in spring. It seems as good a place to starts as any.
This simple passage sets up the idea of the continuum of time, and as we see as the novel continues, the past and even the seeds for the future are here in the present. While the past is with us through memories, the novel hints at an entirely different presentation of time with the past and present right there in front of our eyes, and while we can’t access the past or the future, all three sectors of time are invisibly connected.
It’s spring 2006, and Fintan, in middle age, experiences moments of disassociation–familiar objects seem bizarre; he tunes out of a conversation with someone as he no longer pays attention to the spoken words but instead feels as though he’s “watching a film with the sound turned down.” These incidents involving “hallucinations and strange shifts of perception” open Fintan’s mind to a greater awareness of the past–specifically though an interest in photography. He become fascinated with a photograph of an unidentified ancestress, and at one point also notes that the sky looks a certain way one day, and “it was also how it would have looked in certain days in the eighteenth century.” The notion of passing time is clear–photographs may “preserve” a moment, but our lives are brief and fleeting.
While Fintan begins to discover the history of early photography, his sister Martina emerges as the second main character in the novel who wrestles with the past but for entirely different reasons. We know there’s some dark secret involving her sudden panicked flight from London years earlier and her return to Dublin. Martina now lives with her Aunt Beth in a wonderful home that seems to exist in some sort of time warp. On the surface, Martina, who owns a small, successful clothing shop seems to be a very collected, organized business woman, but as Fintan notes, “you could spend a lifetime looking at Martina and wondering who she was.”
The quiet joy of this book is in the details of life and family. Fintan and Collette have two sons: Rob, who “while still in his cot [he] had the thousand-yard stare of a hostile banker,” and Niall, a vegetarian with a “highly developed social conscience.” While Niall is “somewhat ascetic,” Rob, who brings home “a succession of trophy girlfriends” develops “expensive tastes and habits.” These early-established differences and behaviours are sign-posts for the future, and in one slightly awkward chapter (the only thing I’d fault in this otherwise exquisite novel), we get a glimpse of the future of this family, post boom.
More than anything else, the members of this average Irish family, for this reader, seemed extraordinarily vivid and quite real. There’s one wonderful scene when Fintan takes his daughter and her friend to the zoo, and collects the other girl from her divorced father–a man Fintan recognizes as being a younger, sadder version of himself:
This is domestic chaos on an industrial scale. He can just about find space on the island for his Pooh mug amidst the wreckage of a week’s worth of rushed breakfast and lousy dinners. The jacket of yesterday’s suit hangs over the back of a chair; the silk snake of the tie lies coiled on the floor beneath it. The apartment is so coolly minimalist in its design, and yet so unrepentantly squalid, that Fintan cannot help but admire the other man for his sheer chutzpah in having comprehensively trashed the place, as a revolt against being forced to live there. Fintan salutes his refusal to be reasonable; his rejection of this chilly box as his home.
The novel establishes Fintan’s relationship with his mother, Joan, fraught with its ritualistic landmines, almost immediately, and we know that there’s more to come. The novel’s finest moment has to be when Fintan visits his mother and he layers the visit with the element of a game, rewarding himself with an “extra cake” if his mother tramples onto already well-abused territory:
“Such flowers! They’re like the sun itself! They’ll light up the room for me.” They exchange pleasantries and small talk as he follows her down the hall to her ground-floor apartment, and he asks himself, as he sometimes does initially when they meet why he had dreaded so much going to see her, although he wonders how long it will be before the first signs of conflict appear. Almost immediately, the slow attrition begins.
“And don’t you have Lucy with you?”
Fintan says no, that Colette has taken her to the hairdressers.
“Well that’s a disappointment, I had been looking forward to seeing her.”
One-nil. As he sits down on the sofa he realises that he is still holding the paper bag with the fish in it, so he hands it to her.
“Smoked salmon. You couldn’t have brought me anything more welcome.”
An equalizer in the second minute. She takes the packet of fish from the bag and waves it at him sternly.
“Now if you could get that son of your to eat some of this, it would do him good. He can’t be getting the protein he needs from those nuts or greens or whatever it us that he lives on.”
That scene, my favourite in the book, is painfully real, yet author Deirdre Madden doesn’t create monsters or villains here (well, ok, one deep in the past); these are moments pulled from life, and later on in that same scene, we see Joan isn’t just a repetitive mouthpiece, she’s intelligent and thoughtful, and quite ready with “gloomy predictions” about Ireland’s future. Because of scenes such as this, the reader is allowed into the lives of some incredibly human characters. I’ve seen reviews complaining about this book in which ‘nothing happens,’ and I’ve seen other reviews praising the book highly. I’m of the latter opinion. This is a graceful tale of the passing of time and the ephemeral qualities to our lives. Madden’s quiet, yet emotionally powerful tale argues that we should cherish every precious second because that moment won’t return again.