Saturday, January 21, 2012

Beautiful books: Molly Fox's Birthday

 "What kind of woman has a saffron quilt on her bed? Wears a white linen dressing gown? Keeps beside her bed a stack of gardening books? Stores all her clothes in a shabby antique wardrobe, with a mirror built into its door? Who is she when she is in this room, alone and unobserved, and in what way does that differ from the person she is when she is in a restaurant with friends or in rehearsal or engaging with members of the public? Who, in short, is Molly Fox?" (Madden, Deirdre: Molly Fox's Birthday, faber and faber, London 2008, p.9)

This, for me, is one of those books that make you feel almost bereft when you finish it. I didn't want to leave the setting and the characters. I came across Molly Fox's Birthday while browsing in my favourite bookshop in Galway, and now I cannot wait to read Deirdre Madden's other books. It is not only a good story, taking place in one single day, with flashbacks to events in the past, but addresses big questions ranging from philosophy to art history (specifically the role of memorials) and religion. It is ideas-driven, with the ideas seamlessly woven into the narrative most of the time. I love this kind of novel. I kept a notebook handy while reading it - on almost every page there was some truth that I wanted to write down to revisit.

 It happens to be about so many things I deeply care about. I love both non-fiction and fiction about art and artists' lives. The nameless narrator is a playwright struggling to write her next play who is staying in her friend Molly's house in Dublin while Molly is in New York. Molly is a gifted actor with an extraordinary voice. The narrator ponders their friendship and who Molly, who takes on so many different roles and in her personal life is shy and private, really is. Other characters include a mutual friend (an art historian), the narrator's brother (a priest), Molly's brother, who suffers from depression, and a stranger who is a fan of Molly's. We see everything and everybody through the narrator's eyes. I loved the descriptions of Molly's house and garden - the atmosphere including smells and changing light is brilliantly rendered - and how they and the things they contain contribute to her identity and trigger memories in the narrator.

The novel examines the nature of friendship and family bonds, the concept of home, the shifting and fluid nature of identity, how well we can really know another person, and the vital role that art plays - "so much social interchange is inherently false, and real communication can only be achieved in ways that seem strange and artificial" (p.214) - and along the way offers many beautiful insights into life, raising questions about how to live a full and true life and what that means.

The blurbs by Frank McGuinness and Sebastian Barry on the book jacket both emphasise the compassion or sympathy in Madden's writing, and it does suffuse every single page. I am so glad I stumbled upon this writer.


  1. I love the quotation that you chose from the book; I'll have a look out for this myself. I tend these days to stick far too strictly to the authors I already know and enjoy, and am always glad to hear suggestions - I still mean to check out some of the memoirs that you wrote about in a post from a few months back!

  2. That sounds great! I've put it on my list to-read :) I love reading about artists' lives and as Catherine says the quote you chose is so beautiful