I have to confess that my heart sank when this novel thudded onto the doormat. I’d been looking forward to it very much but it weighs in at just over 600 pages which for a first novel, or any novel come to that, is quite an undertaking. It’s just the kind of book that appeals to me, though, one which reflects and refracts society through the experiences of a single family. In this case it’s a small one – Eileen and Ed Leary, and their son Connell – beginning in 1951 with ten-year-old Eileen and ending in 2011 with thirty-four-year old Connell inhabiting an entirely different world. In between, Matthew Thomas tells their story in such a quiet, considered yet compelling manner that you find yourself completely immersed in it.
Eileen is the daughter of Big Mike who holds court in the bar every night gently putting young men right but gambling the family money away, and Bridget who deals with the fallout, taking to drink herself when a miscarriage puts an end to all hope of more children. She’s bright, restless and determined to get away, becoming a nurse rather than joining the secretarial pool along with so many of her contemporaries. On New Year’s Eve 1965 she meets Ed Leary on a blind date and when they kiss at midnight she is sure that this quiet, thoughtful man is the one she’ll marry. Passionate about his neurological research, Ed turns down dazzling offers from Merck and NYU deciding instead to teach under privileged kids. These two build a life together – establishing their separate careers, eventually having a child after many years of trying – until Ed’s behaviour begins to change in puzzling ways. Eileen explains it away to herself until it becomes clear that something is seriously wrong. The consultation they both attend reveals that Ed has early onset Alzheimer’s. The rest of the novel charts Ed’s slow diminishment, Eileen’s painful acceptance and Connell’s inability to do so. Not a cheery read, then, but a very fine one that I found hard to put down no matter how wrenching Thomas’s descriptions of Ed’s decline.
Much of the beauty of this novel lies in Thomas’s compassionate characterisation: Eileen’s restless discontent, her constant need for betterment are in counterpoint to Ed’s quietly idealistic dedication to his work, subtly conveying the tensions running through what is essentially a fine marriage. Connell’s adolescent self-absorption and denial in the face of his father’s illness is entirely credible. The social change that rips through the latter half of the American twentieth century is mirrored both in the lives of the Leary family and in the changes in their neighbourhood. Thomas is a master of ‘show not tell’, quietly drawing his readers into his story. If I have one complaint it would be the inclusion of the epilogue. The beautifully crafted ending with its family meal, emblematic of so much of what has come before, seemed to me the perfect conclusion to this richly textured, ambitious novel.