Nuala O’Faolain’s design was 1 of daring, bleak music. Photograph: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland
Hugo Hamilton has made his personal distinctive spot in Irish creating, blending fiction and memoir. The Speckled Men and women and The Sailor in the Wardrobe inform the story of his eccentric Dublin childhood and teenage years. His German mom came on a pilgrimage to Ireland at the end of the war, expiating horrors, and met his Cork-born father – a passionate nationalist who insisted that their kids spoke only Irish. The sins and the virtues of the dad and mom weigh heavily on the children in Hamilton’s globe: the present is always saturated with the previous and the near intimacy of Dublin lifestyle seems to be out on to the wider planet of Europe. The dreamy movement of association and freight of sensuous detail make the memoirs truly feel like novels. Meanwhile, his superb novel Disguise – which begins when a 3-12 months-previous dies in the course of bombing in wartime Germany and his distraught mother accepts an additional three-year-old in lieu – has a reach across cultures and decades that is nearly documentary in its scope.
In a new book written as a novel, his material is drawn from existence. When his pal the Irish journalist and writer Nuala O’Faolain was dying of cancer in her 60s, Hamilton went with her to devote two days in Berlin, a city she had never been to before. She died a week after they came back, and Every Single Minute is based mostly on this true story. Writing the story as a fiction puts all the novel-form’s fluidity at Hamilton’s disposal: “not getting to clarify something … manufactured it easier to explain everything”. The novel follows Una and Liam close to Berlin, to the Botanic Backyard, the Wall, the Pergamon Museum and the Holocaust memorial. They have lunch with admirers of Una’s at the Paris bar the place Dietrich held her last party, and they go to see Verdi’s Don Carlos. The opera has a specific significance for Una simply because it reminds her of her personal desperate loved ones.
Una’s breakthrough as a author, like O’Faolain’s in true life, has come with the success of two family memoirs in which her father – outwardly a charming, influential journalist and social columnist for a Dublin paper – appears as a petty domestic tyrant and violent bully. She says that “her dad and mom are murderers” due to the fact her younger brother witnessed his father’s violence towards his mom and drank himself to death. Liam privately thinks she is “exaggerating”, and tries to coax her to see her mother and father with more ambivalence. They argue about forgiveness: Una says she is not “letting anybody off the hook” or altering her story.
But why is it that she has walked away from her love affairs, with males and girls, and hasn’t had young children of her own? She is residing alone now that death approaches. Aren’t her mothers and fathers in some sense responsible? Courageous, crusading, going public on all the secret sins of the past – the church-burdened sexual shame, the casual misogyny, the overbearing patriarchy – Una’s total identity is created on her insistence that every little thing ought to be far better, by getting different.
Inquiries about judgment and forgiveness attain into all the elements of the novel, including Liam’s personal anxieties about his relationships with his estranged wife and daughter. After they walk out of Don Carlos, Una begins to speak in a different way about her brother’s death, blaming herself now in a new turn of the emotional screw, saying she was too active with her own existence to have time for him. “I must have stated to him, pay attention Jimmy, we are going to go travelling collectively … Certain, what does it matter that he was consuming?” But these causal explanations, assigning blame, only interest Hamilton obliquely – it is unlikely, anyway, that taking Jimmy on vacation would have saved him. The novelist is watching Una, not judging whether or not she is right or wrong. He is trying to catch her in his words, as novels do: her curiosity and appetite and inimitable style, flamboyantly opinionated and uncompromising. The style is in her red canvas footwear, as well, and in the transparent zipper bag that carries her glasses, medications, chocolate bars and passport in her “high voice, very innocent, as if everything was new to her” and in how she mothers and hectors Liam from her wheelchair, domineering and impatient.
Hamilton is a subtle writer, assembling worlds through a painstaking layered accretion. Some of the gentle comedy in Every single Single Minute comes from the odd pair they make: Una’s dramatic large colour and Liam’s hesitation. Una can sound bullying and histrionic – if Hamilton had been producing her up, he’d almost certainly have provided her character much more nuance. Submerged in the novel’s complexity, Una’s rants don’t usually obtain the bold, bleak music of O’Faolain’s own design. “As soon as I heard I was going to die,” the real-lifestyle journalist mentioned in a radio interview in the course of her last weeks, “the goodness went from life.” And: “It seems such a waste of creation that with each death all that knowledge dies.” This novel is a diffident act of commemoration, necessarily incomplete.
Tessa Hadley’s Clever Lady is published by Jonathan Cape.