Thursday, July 24, 2008

Irish Literature: The Silence in the Garden by William Trevor

When the topic for this edition of the Carnival of Irish Heritage and Culture which is hosted at Small-Leaved Shamrock was announced, I knew it (summer reading) was something I could do if I could get my other reading commitments completed in time to read one for this one! (Since I've not uncovered any Irish roots of my own, I'm frequently unable to participate in this particular carnival.) I browsed the Irish fiction section at our library and located one very short one in case I was really time-strapped and one that was a little longer but still manageable with the short time frame that I knew I'd be facing for reading it. I ended up reading that one that interested me more.

Trevor, William. The Silence in the Garden. New York: Penguin, 1990.

On the cover of the paperback, there is a notice that this novel was the recipient of the Yorkshire Post Book of the Year award. I'm not really sure how I want to approach this novel for the "review" as I'm not sure that I want to do a "real" review. I think I want to tell you what drew me to the book in the first place. The back cover promised a family secret, a death, and a diary. Now we all know that those are the things that genealogists really crave. As I began to read the book, I discovered that the family resided on an island in County Cork where the access to the mainland was, at first, by ferry only. The big news was that they would be building a bridge, but it would make the walk longer for the illegitimate son of one of the servants of the household to attend the convent school. That bridge is opened in the course of the book even though the family really doesn't like its location or its name. (I'll make you read the novel to find out why they didn't like the name.) The central female character is Sarah, a distant relation who becomes governess. It is her diary that is read upon her death, revealing the family secrets.

It is a 20th century setting. It spans from the turn of the century to 1971 when Sarah dies. One of the things that can be seen in the book is the Protestant vs. Catholic conflict that existed. The author also mentions the problems the family faced when the potato blight hit the country.

Genealogy is an often-mentioned theme in the book. One of the characters is a solicitor named Finnamore Balt who marries into the family. In a passage dealing with him, the author writes:

The law it was that allowed him his knowledge of the neighbourhood he lived in, and its people: family histories and family origins filled the mahogany filing-cabinets, filled drawers and desks and forgotten deed boxes. (p. 40)

The author then goes on to describe some of the things that could be found that tell the family's story and gives some examples of liaisons between the book's central family and other families of the area. As Finnamore had been practicing law for forty years, he had no problem reading and understanding the "legalese" in the documents in his possession. I'd like to think that there will come a day when I'll consult Black's Law Dictionary less often than I do now. However, I know that I don't consult it as much as I once did so I guess I'm making progress. I know when I've come across an unusual clause now and focus my attention on comprehending how that clause makes it different from other documents.

On page 41 is a phrase that I think describes most of our genealogical blogs and the genealogical carnivals pretty well: Random fruit from an orchid of genealogical trees. I just really liked that line and wanted to share it!

Later in the book there is another mention of the genealogical research at the law office:

There were other people also, the remnants of old families whose genealogy was recorded in the mahogany filing-cabinets of Harbinson and Balt, the children of families that had more lately reached a social height not previously attained. (p. 139)

I just find it interesting that the author continues to emphasize this point. I'm sure that some of the research was conducted upon the death of various persons in the family, but I wonder how much was contributed by the families themselves. I do know that there was one thing revealed in the diary that would have changed some of what was there if it had not been well-researched.

It's an interesting well-written novel. It's also one that I'm sure that I will need to go back and reread now that I know the outcome so that I can fully appreciate its depth.

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