The first line in Deirdre Madden’s new novel is a simple question, but in the context of this spare, enlightening story, it carries heavy meaning. “Where does it all begin?” she writes, and then introduces us to Fintan Buckley, a middle-aged family man and legal advisor who’s “faithful as Lassie.” He stops at a café before returning to the office after lunch and there, over his coffee and cake, experiences a psychic detachment from the present moment. Words, language and objects are becoming strange to him. This is where it begins for Fintan, who starts to feel a dimension of past and present time existing simultaneously, that which is eternal time. This concept would be expected in a science fiction novel, but this is a story about an ordinary man living an ordinary life in the year 2006.
Fintan lives with his wife and three children in a small coastal town outside Dublin, Ireland. We learn about his courtship and marriage to his wife Colette and his struggle to be a loving parent to his two sons both now in college – frugal, socially conscious Niall and materialistic Rob. Then, Lucy came along, a surprise, late-in-life baby, now seven years old, the love of Fintan’s life. His widowed mother never tires of her own company, and his sister Martina owns and runs a women’s clothing boutique. She unexpectedly returned to Dublin from London just in time to help their recently widowed Aunt Beth. In one chapter, Fintan takes Lucy and her friend Emma to the zoo.
In other words, it is a typical life for Fintan and his family. Except Fintan has become worried that his life will be over before he’s had a chance to live it, or understand it. Madden writes, “Sometimes he feels he can almost hear time rushing past him; it is like a kind of unholy wind. He wakes, he works, he sleeps, and then another day is gone and then another week.” Fintan becomes intrigued with old black-and-white photographs and the way they stop time. Lucy asks questions, such as: When did the world change from black and white to color? Where does the past go? Meanwhile, the odd shifts in perception continue. For example, Fintan listens to his elderly Aunt Beth and hears her voice as it would’ve been when she was a young girl.
Three months go by, and the shifts become less frequent. Deirdre Madden writes, “Where does it all end?” as the first line of the last chapter. Fintan discovers the answer in the conclusion of this perceptive novel, and it lies in the full nature of time beyond the measurement of clocks and calendars — because they can only tell us time is passing.
The title Time Present and Time Past comes from “Burnt Norton” in T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
You can hear T.S. Eliot reading the complete poem at Open Culture.