Mistaken by Neil Jordan

by John Boland

Towards the end of Neil Jordan’s new novel, the narrator reflects on “that strange obsession with past decades, the fifties, the forties, the twenties, that bedevilled Irish fiction. Didn’t they ever write about the present?” The same question could be asked of this book, in which the present proves no match for the lovingly recollected Dublin of the sixties, seventies and eighties.

It’s a remarkable evocation of vanished times and altered places and of two lost souls who inhabited them, and it’s a remarkable advance for Jordan, too, in the way that Let the Great World Spin was for Colum McCann – just as no one could have foreseen the huge leap forward, both imaginatively and artistically, that was achieved by McCann in his American novel,  Jordan’s previous fiction, fine though much of it was, had given no indication of the narrative confidence, psychological truthfulness and depth of feeling that are managed here.

In truth, Jordan had always registered as something of a dabbler – an immensely talented one but a dabbler nonetheless, whether in his fiction or in his parallel film career. Considering the latter, David Thomson argues in the latest edition of his magisterial and often combative Biographical Dictionary of Film that Jordan “remains a developing talent, most provoked by small towns and infinite cities” and that, after more than a dozen movies, he seems “as unsettled as a beginner.”

The same could be said of his published fiction. From the 1976 story-collection, Night in Tunisia, to the 2004 novel, Shade, there was evidence of a wonderful facility, but the imagination behind his fiction seemed somehow too restless and unresolved to be wholly persuasive. There was clearly a real author at work in all these books but little sense of a commanding or even recognisable authorial voice with its own inimitable presence.

He’s found that voice and presence in Mistaken, which ironically happens to be about two people who aren’t convinced they have either of these proofs of identity. Narrator Kevin, born and raised modestly in a Marino Crescent lodging house, with a loving mother and largely absent father, becomes aware that he has a living doppelganger, a privileged boy called Gerald from the south side’s Palmerston Park, who’s a student at Belvedere and with whom he is constantly confused – girls he’s never met before berate him for standing them up, he’s chased out of department stores for shoplifting offences he’s never committed and ejected from an amusement arcade he hasn’t been in before for illicitly fiddling with the machines.

Gradually, an obsession with this lookalike develops, along with a realisation that mistaken identity has its upside: “I felt for the first time the freedom of being someone else.” But it’s an illusory freedom in that ultimately no one can escape from their own pasts, misdeeds, misgivings or regrets – or, indeed, from whom they actually are.

The story begins at the funeral of Kevin’s shadow self and the book is shaped as an extended revelatory address to Gerald’s daughter Emily, whom he first encounters at these obsequies. And there’s much to be revealed, both to Emily and to the reader, in a book that manages to be both an engrossing story about a fifty-year relationship based on confusion and  a love letter to a city as it changes over five decades – each chapter has an identifying topographical title, from Deansgrange, Marino and Bull Wall to Ticknock, Bray and Donabate, with occasional excursions to Kilburn, Berlin and Manhattan.

Anyone of Jordan’s generation (he’s now 60) will find the book extraordinary in its evocative immediacy. Indeed, I thought it almost eerie in its retracing of my own past – from boyhood adventures in Woolworth’s of Grafton Street  to afternoons spent at the Wellington Monument, from  moseying around the Eblana bookshop to  meeting with Irish Press literary editor David Marcus in his Burgh Quay office. How did Jordan know so much about where I went, what I did and what I felt? Was he my doppelganger or I his?

Others readers will, no doubt, feel the same shock of recognition. Indeed, there isn’t a false note in this novel, either in terms of  fidelity to place and memory or of insight into character. Even the minor figures in Kevin’s life are arrestingly realised (a portrait of lost love Darragh is especially wrenching), while the loving treatment of his spirited but unfulfilled and finally doomed mother is intensely moving. The narrator’s (and the author’s) kindliness even extends to the errant father, who arrives back home when it’s too late either for mother or son.

This is the best  novel I’ve read about Dublin in many years, beautifully written, funny and touching in its remembered details and haunting in its suggestiveness about who we are, might have been or might yet be as we make our befuddled yet hopeful way through life.

PANEL

Neil Jordan was born in 1950 in Co.Sligo, his mother a painter and his father an academic. When the family moved to Dublin he was educated at St Paul’s, Raheny, and at University College Dublin, where he studied history and literature.

“I was brought up a Catholic,” he told an interviewer in 1999, “and was quite religious at one stage when I was young. But it left me with no scars whatever – it just sort of vanished.”

In 1974 he was one of the founders of the Irish Writers’ Co-Operative and in 1976 his collection of stories, Night in Tunisia, was published, subsequently winning the Guardian Fiction Prize.

John Boorman employed him on the 1981 film Excalibur and in 1982 his first film, Angel, was greeted with international acclaim. The Crying Game in 1992 won him the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. His other Irish films are The Miracle (1991), Michael Collins (1996), The Butcher Boy (1997), Breakfast on Pluto (2005) and Ondine (2009).

His previous novels are The Past (1980), The Dream of the Beast (1983), Sunrise with Sea Monster (1994) and Shade (2004).

Married to Brenda Rawn, he has five children and lives in Dalkey.

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