Making Way. By Theo Dorgan (New Island Press)

by John Boland

Irish Independent, April 13, 2013

When Irish yachtsman Tom first encounters Irish lawyer Clare, it’s at the quayside of Ortigia on Sicily’s south-east coast and he’s about to embark on a one-night stand with a French woman who has moored nearby. When he meets Clare again the next day, the French woman has sailed off into the sunrise.

Such are the sex lives of nomadic sailors. And such is the lure of the open sea that when the ageing Tom invites the much younger Clare to accompany him on the rest of his mediterranean voyage she immediately accepts. And so begins an intense and often fraught relationship in which both people gradually get to learn a lot about each other – the macho Tom revealed as far more vulnerable than he’d initially seemed, and the outwardly confident Clare forced to confront personal demons of her own.

These, we come to realise, are two lost souls, haunted by their pasts and seeking to escape, if only temporarily, the circumstances that made them what they are, though Clare has a more particular motive, too.

Poet Theo Dorgan, a sailor himself, has written two well-regarded books about his love of seafaring and there’s quite a lot of persuasive nautical detail in this first venture into prose fiction. Whether his two main characters are quite as persuasive depends on the reader’s tolerance of people who largely conduct their conversations through bouts of bickering.

Indeed, while Dorgan addresses the big themes – love, loss, loneliness, regret, transience, mortality – he does so via a continuous series of sparring matches between Tom and Clare that frequently register as overly vituperative and wounding.

It’s unclear where this comes from. Is it because of the sexual frisson that’s been there since the opening pages when Clare warned Tom that she wouldn’t be sleeping with him – a situation that constantly seems on the verge of changing throughout the novel and that provides much of its tension? Or is it due to something extraneous – the opting by a first-time novelist to structure his narrative as a sometimes teasing, sometimes angry dialectic between his protagonists?

Whatever the reason, it makes for two people whose failings and insecurities are clear to us but to whom it’s hard to warm. It’s not, of course, the duty of a fiction writer to ensure that his characters are likeable, but we should at least find them bearable company rather than a strain on our patience, which they often are here. “Enough now, enough of the word games, the cleveralities”, Tom says late in the book, and the reader can only concur.

Indeed, it’s hard not to feel that this is a book in search of a suitable form in which to express its concerns. Still, as one would expect from this writer, the expression is often eloquent, with a finely-articulated passion in many of Tom and Clare’s exchanges. And the elegiac resolution has a genuine poignancy.

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