This is a very readable and cleverly structured work but perhaps I have done it an injustice by reading it as a sort of, ‘coming up for air’, break during a marathon Christmas read of Elaine Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet. The writings of these two authors have different qualities and should not be compared. At the same time, while acknowledging the readability of, The Marble Collector, there was something about it that did not sit well with me and I have concluded the problem is a lack of verisimilitude in some of the detailing and not enough story to justify its elaborate structure.
There are two narratives in this novel that run parallel to each other in different time periods. The first is about a character named Fergus Boggs who is introduced as a little boy growing up in Dublin in the early 1950’s at a time when there was a lot more poverty than prosperity in the Irish economy. The second narrative is set in the post millennium, I would guess around 2015 when Dublin would be a considered a modern city still enjoying the economic development advanced by the Celtic Tiger. The principal character here is Sabrina, Fergus’s grown –up daughter. The novel starts out describing Fergus as a child living in poverty with his mother and many siblings. Fergus barely remembers his father who has died. His mother remarried a decent working class man, a butcher who struggles to support a growing mix of children and stepchildren. Fergus, as the youngest child from the first marriage is very much in the middle of this brood and is greedy for his mother’s love and attention of which there is never enough. There is poverty and too many children and callously I thought to myself, “ Oh no, not another Angela’s Ashes …”, although the timeframes would have been different. However, the poverty is not as grinding as Angel’s Ashes and the parents described in the Marble Collector are far more responsible than those of Frank McCourt. Fergus has the advantage of being a smart, clever boy who looks up to and admires his oldest brother. This brother moves to England and is eventually lost to the family. This loss creates a deep chasm of pain in Fergus for most of his life, and is likely the principal motivation for his endeavour to leave his childhood behind, severing all ties with his own family. Fergus grows up playing marbles in the dusty slums of Dublin as a sort of marble playing child prodigy and eventually becomes an international champion. He is also the collector of marbles mentioned in the title. He marries into the middle class and manages to prevent his wife’s family from getting to know his own and is this way makes a complete break with his past.
In alternate chapters Sabrina is introduced and a story is told of her trying in the course of a single day to uncover and understand her father’s family, childhood, his career in marbles and it seems, a secret love life as well. Fergus is now in his sixties and has suffered a stroke that has affected both his memory and his speech. He is being treated in hospital and undergoing therapy in the hope of making a full recovery. Through Fergus’s lawyer Sabrina has come into possession of a box containing a valuable marble collection. With a clue or two provided by the lawyer and in that single day she attempts to establish where it came form and its significance. So while Sabrina embarks on an odyssey to find her way back to her father’s other life in every second chapter some of Fergus’s secret life is revealed. Ultimately there is a satisfactory coalescing of the two stories and an appropriate resolution.
Sabrina works as a lifeguard in a nursing home. She is a swimmer and attracted to water as an elemental force in her life so, having an occupation as a life guard has a logical place in the story but the nursing home part is out of kilter. It is supposed to be a posh place but I think it would have been better to have made it a retirement home or a residence for those in need of assisted living. Colleen Ahern has allowed the barely ambulatory and people covered in bedsores to wander down to the swimming pool, which seems to be out doors (in Dublin? In Winter?). I don’t know when Ms. Ahern last went swimming in a pool public or private but most I have ever been to have rules about not entering the pool if you have an open wound or sore… it is not hygienic. Then there is the business of her solving the mystery of her father’s secret life. Sabrina follows clues she encounters beginning with the office of Fergus’s lawyer. She has the day off from work and drives in and around Dublin following the clues she hopes will reveal her father’s secretive past. Back in the time of James Joyce’s Dublin perhaps Leopold Bloom might have tooled around that city and completed such a mission in a day. However Dublin is no a longer a sleepy little town but is a metropolis with traffic worthy of a city many time its size. The action described does not fit the time frame. There was also the little conceit of there being an eclipse of the sun on this day. Earth, moon, and sun came into alignment. Perhaps that detail was added to complete the suspense and the urgency of the exercise of unravelling a mystery. It also dovetailed with Sabrina’s love of water as the moon, in particular, influences the tides but it is an odd detour from the story taken as a whole.
It took me a while to understand why I felt an overall dissatisfaction with this novel. I discovered a clue to solving the puzzle in an interview with Ms. Ahern printed at the end of the edition I had read. She explains that the story, in its original conception, was a writing exercise and she had meant to develop it into a work of short fiction. I see now that what she has created is a big house without enough furnishing. Yes, there are areas with lots of detail but there are too many gaps the reader is expected to fill in and in some places the reader is not even given as much as a tight rope to get to the other side. For example, how can you live with the same partner for decades, have a secret life as well as have a reputation on an international level?
In any case, I love Dublin and welcome any excuse to visit it in fiction or fact. I love Irish literature as well. The Marble Collector is a book worth reading for these reasons alone.