Book Review by Frank O’Shea
Anne Griffin: WHEN ALL IS SAID. Hodder & Stoughton 2019. 266 pp.
ISBN: 978 1 473 68300 6
If you are even vaguely familiar with small-town Ireland, you probably know Maurice Hannigan, the first person narrator in this quite magnificent story. He is the man who came from nothing, who regarded school as a waste of time, but managed by hard work and innate cuteness to build up a fortune in land and property. He wasn’t a cheat, but would take ruthless advantage of any of his neighbours who happened to be in temporary trouble. Now aged 84, he appears to have no friends in the town, his only contacts the local solicitors, real estate agents and finance managers.
But though he is a peculiarly Irish combination of ruthless businessman and what we used to call ‘cute hoor’, you can’t help but like Maurice, or at least sympathise with him. He knows he is not popular or conventionally clever – he finished school at ten and more than half a century later, discovered that he was dyslexic – and is aware that many people of his age have friends where he has only casual contacts. Now he has made a decision and we join him in a number of toasts to people of significance in his long life.
First is his older brother Tony, his hero and protector, who died of consumption as a teenager. Then there is his sister-in-law Noreen who has been committed to a mental asylum and his only son Kevin who is a successful journalist in America. Each is toasted as he recalls his relationship with them. “Maybe I’d have been happier if you’d been a gobshite. Chip off the old block. Then maybe I could’ve talked to you. Feck it, son, you really pulled the short straw with me. A cranky-arsed father who can’t read for shite.”
The other two are his wife Sadie and his stillborn daughter Molly. His life could be summed up by their story. Sadie, a few weeks from delivering their first, long-awaited child, feels that something is wrong in her pregnancy: the baby seems to have stopped moving. He tells her she should not worry and goes off to finalise an important business deal. When he returns some hours later to take Sadie to the hospital, it is too late. He convinces himself that he is responsible for Molly never seeing life and she haunts his thoughts from then on.
The chapter on Sadie is the final one and the saddest in many ways as Maurice tells us he is unable to live without her.
The deep-down kind of love that holds on to your bones and digs itself right in under your fingernails, as hard to budge as the years of compacted earth. … Loneliness, that fecker again, wreaking his havoc on us mortals. It’s worse than any disease, gnawing away at our bones as we sleep, plaguing our minds when awake.
He has never been unfaithful but realises how badly he has treated her, reprising how he would refuse to buy her ice cream for her dessert or a cup of Earl Grey tea at the end of a hotel dinner.
The reader can only marvel at a young woman who can so inhabit the inner world of a lonely old man the way that Anne Griffin does. This is her first book and she joins the long list of new Irish writers – Anna Burns, Sally Rooney, Paraic O’Donnell, Liz Nugent, Donal Ryan – who have stormed the literary world in recent years.
This is a sad book certainly, but it is the sadness of an old man who admits his own inadequacies and realises what his business success has cost him. The structure of five toasts for five different people allows us to meet each of them and learn how their life was affected by Maurice. He loved them all and wanted only the best for them, but all suffered in different ways from his love. For all that, he admits that he is the problem and does so with black humour and without any attempt to excuse his own culpability.
What a first book!