I have a weakness for Irish fiction. It’s often characterised by a restrained clarity – beautiful, elegant prose with a yearning quality about it – or at least the work of authors I favour fits that description. Colm Tóibin, John McGahern, William Trevor, Ann Enright, Deirdre Madden all come to mind and after reading When Light is Like Water I’ll be adding Molly McCloskey’s name to that list. This slim, quietly brilliant novel tells the story of Alice who came to Ireland from Oregon as a young woman and fell in love with an Irishman.
Decades after she first arrived in Ireland, Alice is house-sitting, back from her job with an NGO at a Kenyan refugee camp. Blindsided by grief at her mother’s death, she looks back at her relationship with the woman who raised her alone and at her own brief marriage to Eddie. Alice had come to Ireland when she was twenty-four with no plan in mind, just a need to become herself. She finds a job in a Sligo pub, makes friends then falls in love with a quiet, steady man, older than herself. These two marry, seeming almost to play at it – Alice still without direction, picking up the odd freelance writing gig and keeping house. They move to the country with the possibility of children in the air but neither can quite bring themselves to commit to the idea. Eddie sometimes travels on business, occasionally Alice goes with him but one day, when he’s away, she meets Cauley, a young writer whose radio spots will offer the convenient excuse of the possibility of work for her. We know from the start that Alice and Cauley will have an affair, and that Eddie and she are no longer married. McCloskey’s novel unfolds Alice’s memories of that intense summer, interspersed with her mother’s story and her experiences of working for the NGO.
When Light is Like Water is a richly textured novel about the complexities of love in its many forms. McCloskey narrates it through Alice’s quietly contemplative voice, exploring the devastation of her grief for her mother but also for the life that she might have led. Her loneliness is palpable in her frequent visits to the real estate website where she’s found the house she and Eddie made their home, playing the marketing video and noting evidence of children. McCloskey couples lovely descriptive passages with a remarkable acuity, penetrating in its observation: ‘Cauley and I were still in our trance’; ‘If we don’t know where we belong, we can feel homesick for almost anywhere we’ve been’; ’I swung between a lightness of being that bordered on vertigo and a sorrow that made the least movement difficult’. This is a deeply thought-provoking novel: multi-layered, complex and beautifully expressed. McCloskey’s writing career stretches back over a couple of decades during which she’s written a memoir and three works of fiction. I’ll be keeping my eye out for them, you can be sure.