An Irish family secret revealed
December 13, 2011
Earlier this year, I joined the New York Review Books subscription book club. For six months, I received a new classic published by the imprint. While editors and publicists frequently send me books to read for review, these books arriving in the mail felt different to me, more like a present and a surprise, no press release attached. One of the books was Brian (pronounced BREE-an) Moore’s The Mangan Inheritance, first published in 1979.
How easy to be immersed in the sterling craftsmanship of Brian Moore, who was born in Northern Ireland and lived many years of his adult life in Canada and then Malibu, California, where he died in 1999. Moore was short-listed three times for the Man Booker Prize and highly praised for many of his 19 novels, including The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne and The Emperor of Ice Cream. “Dip him in the river who loves water,” the poet William Blake wrote in his Proverbs of Hell. And so, long a fan of this enduring author, I was dipped in The Mangan Inheritance, caught up in the richly created third-person narrative, written from the viewpoint of Jamie Mangan, whose experience we follow over several weeks during and shortly after the New Year’s holiday.
The novel opens with Jamie struggling under the recent shock that his wife, Beatrice Abbott, an Oscar-nominated celebrity, is leaving him for another man. He’s lived in her shadow for their six-year marriage, a journalist whose earnings are a pittance compared to hers, whose everything is because of her. Without Beatrice, Jamie thinks, “It’s as if I don’t exist anymore.”
Jamie escapes to his hometown, Montreal, to find solace with his father and stepmother. He tells his father, “At 36 I am nothing.” But Jamie’s father reminds his son of his long-ago calling to be a poet. At the age of 19, Jamie published one of his poems in The New Yorker.
Poetry is in the Mangan bloodline. Jamie’s grandfather, who emigrated to Montreal from Ireland, claimed to be descended from the Irish poet James Clarence Mangan (1803-1849). During his Montreal visit, the despondent Jamie finds a daguerreotype with “(J.M. 1847 ?)” written “in a sloping looped script” on the back of it. He believes the photographed person to be his ancestral poète maudit. The face is a mirror image of his own.
Jamie’s resemblance to the man in the daguerreotype inspires him to confirm if it is indeed the Irish poet and resolve whether or not they’re related. He travels to Ireland, where he meets Mangan relatives in the town of Drishane, several hours outside of Shannon. They include Conor and Kathleen Mangan, brother and sister who live in a yellow caravan trailer in the fields behind a former Mangan farmhouse, and Eileen and her son Dinny, who live similarly in a cottage behind another abandoned Mangan home.
Jamie succumbs to his lust for the beautiful, 18-year-old Kathleen, who’s convinced he’s a “fillim star.” Their erotic, dependent relationship snares Jamie in his vulnerability. He becomes pathetic and inappropriate in his desire for the young girl, “again a woman’s prisoner.” Meanwhile, his face is locally recognized as the double not for the 19th-century poet, but Kathleen’s Uncle Mike, Eileen’s husband. The resemblance causes heads to turn but more significantly triggers Kathleen to experience moments of madness, an indicator of a hidden family secret. Eileen responds to Jamie’s questions about his Mangan heritage, “If you keep looking over your shoulder, sir, you’ll find things you don’t want to find.”
Moore describes the Irish rainy weather and barren landscape so powerfully you see the narrow, rocky roads lined with hedgerows, feel the cold buffeting winds and hear the ocean’s foamy roar with palpable intensity. He closely binds our sympathies to Jamie while skillfully increasing the tension around the Mangan family secret, building to a stunning conclusion. The story is involving not only because of Moore’s faultless characterizations and well-conceived plot, but also for the story’s consequential theme of identity, demonstrating what happens when — as Jamie realizes about himself — we become indifferent caretakers of our calling.