Sunday, March 17, 2013

Staring at Lakes by Michael Harding

Thought I would review an Irish book for St Paddy's Day. It's the most recent work of fiction I've read, so very fitting. I've known Michael since the 1980s when we used to camp out at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annagmakerrig, an artist's retreat in the heart of the Irish countryside. (That's tongue in cheek about the camping, it's a luxurious mansion serving Ballymaloe meals.) Other writers and critics have said this book is wonderful, and it's on the Irish bestseller list, so you needn't think I'm biased when I give it the 20 minutes of well-reasoned praise we all covet in a review. It's a compelling, if harrowing read. Being non-fiction, it's not his usual kind of work - I've read Priest and The Trouble With Sarah Gullion, both powerful, beautifully written books. The first is my favourite, a collection of short stories from the time he was a Catholic priest. I also saw one of his plays at the Peacock Theatre in Dublin: the fantastic and fantastical Una Pooka. He's a man with a raw wild energy just barely locked inside him, like a sleeping dragon or volcano, which erupts into prose, mad partying, and - according to his memoir - black episodes of self-loathing and despair. "You're dangerous," I said to him once, only half joking. "I wouldn't want to be considered harmless," he replied. Staring at Lakes is not an easy read. For one thing, it's all over the shop, jumping through time, with tone and mood as changeable as the Irish weather. Form reflects content! If you are inclined to depression, you just might find yourself too close to the border of that country. His honesty is excrutiating. And he's devastatingly hard on himself, like most crucified Irish men of his age and background. In contrast, it's a joy to read about the love of and for his wife and child: islands of joy in the sea of suffering. Ireland is a small place. We all end up crossing each other's songlines. Michael not only writes of his time at Annaghmakerrig - must say, I remember him having much more fun than he writes of, indeed leading us all on Dionysian dances!; but he also describes his relationship with Tibetan Buddhism and the same lama who is my teacher. (I'll be following in Michael's footsteps when I journey to Outer Mongolia this year in the company of the lama.) One of the most potent pieces of writing in this book is the description of a young Tibetan's life and the murder of the boy's mother by soldiers. So, I highly recommend the book, but don't expect for a minute, a light or entertaining read.