My Book of the Year

Book Review by Frank O’Shea

The Midnight House. By Amanda Geard. Hachette Australia 2022. 422 pp. $26.25

At last a book that can be recommended with no ifs or buts, the kind that one day will likely be called a classic. We will return to the story shortly, but first a brief note on the author, Amanda Geard. She is a young Tasmanian, a professional geologist, who has settled with her husband in the idyllic area of Sneem on the Ring of Kerry. It is a little hidden gem that loses out to bigger towns like Kenmore, Killarney and Waterville, but was, in the past, a favoured and much-repeated holiday destination for people as worldly-wise as Charlie Chaplin and Charles de Gaulle.

There is something special about an ‘outsider’ setting a novel in Ireland. When the writer is from beautiful Tasmania, it is particularly special. More than half a century ago, this reviewer persuaded a young woman from the Southern Highlands of New South Wales to settle with him in a Dublin suburb. At the time, being young, it did not occur to us to imagine the sacrifice of moving from the sun of Australia to the six-month winter that is Ireland. Amanda Geard is doing that right now, the transition appearing only once and then almost by accident in over 400 pages: 

The gloom of the afternoon looked like dusk, but sunset was hours away. That was Ballinn in September; it could be summer or winter or anything in between.

So we come to the story. It deals with the titled Rathmore family of Blackwater Hall in the fictional area of Ballinn – if you read this as Sneem, you won’t be too far out, though that town is mentioned as a place visited by people in the story. The original Baron Rathmore was said to have lost much of his fortune helping locals to leave the country during the Famine.

Now we are on the fourth Baron, and his family have restored their prosperity. It is 1939, as Britain is about to go to war and Ireland will have its simpler version, The Emergency. The youngest in the family is 19-year-old Charlotte and she is being a nuisance through her involvement in a local dramatic society and her determination not to marry the older aristocrat selected for her by her family. How she deals with her problem is the central theme of the story.

We go forward to 1958 to meet the fifth baron and his wife, neither enthusiastic about the title which has fallen to them as a result of people who have lost their lives during the War. Finally, we move forward again, this time to 2019, when a young journalist at The Irish Times loses her job because of something she wrote about corruption in developments in Dublin. She is Ellie Fitzgerald and her long-term relationship with her boyfriend is breaking up. She returns to her native Sneem and finds in an Agatha Christie book, a letter written some eighty years earlier by Charlotte Rathmore. Almost by accident, she finds herself trying to get to the story behind the letter.

The narrative moves backwards and forwards between 1939, 1958 and 2019, each transition clearly signposted in chapter titles. You will find yourself referring back at times to the family tree of the Rathmores, provided at the start of the book. As befits a story that covers more than 80 years, the cast of characters is large, involving locals as well as aristocracy and people from Dublin and London. 

The story is enthralling, with secrets slowly revealed. And there are little sad reminders of a different time, like the description of a young woman trying to give birth as the Germans bomb the little rooms she shares in central London.

Completely delightful, the book will do nothing but good for the author and her new home and its customs. 

Ellie stepped up to the worn doormat, Failte – Welcome – woven into its surface, and rapped on the door. Took a step back. Wondered at the right thing to do. Traditionally, neighbours in Kerry did very little waiting at doors; they walked right in, the unspoken rule being that one’s kitchen was always open.

As Irish as the river Liffey, as Kerry as the Mcgillicuddy Reeks, this is a book to delight. And at a time when so many women writers seem to be trying to out-do their male counterparts in vulgarity and crudity, here is a book that has no act or word that might offend your sainted mother. Not one!

Amanda Geard, freeman of Kerry, welcome to Tinteán.

Frank O’Shea is a member of the Tinteán editorial collective