Deirdre Madden

1960- ; b. 20 Aug. 1960, lives Toomebridge, Co. Antrim [actually Belfast]; ed. St Mary’s Grammar School, Magherafelt, Co. Derry; B.A. Hons from TCD (Dublin), 1983; MA (with distinction), University of East Anglia, 1985, where she attended Malcolm Bradbury’s creative writing school; first published by David Marcus in ‘Irish Writing’ [Irish Press] while in college; winner of Hennessy Award, 1980; international attention followed Hidden Symptoms, novella published in Faber’s First Fictions, Introduction 9 (1986); winner of Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, 1987;
m. Harry Clifton [q.v.]; travelled to Italy for three years; issued The Birds of the Innocent Wood (1988), winner of the Somerset Maugham Prize, 1989; published Remembering Light and Stone (1992) dealing with the life of a woman on the continent following a crisis in love; also Nothing is Black (1994) and One by One in the Darkness (1996), winner of Listowel Kerry Ingredients Book Award; twice shortlisted for Orange Prize for Fiction for women;
she has won the Bisto Merit Awards and the Eilís Dillon Award for a First Children’s Book with Snake’s Elbows (2005); adjudicated 1995 Fish Short Story Competition; TCD writer-in-residence, 1997; elected to Aosdana, Nov. 1997; issued Authenticity (2002), a study of three tangled artists’s lives; issue Time Present and Time Past (2013), a study of Dublin family life; teaches MA in Creative Writing at the Oscar Wilde Centre for Irish Writing, TCD. ATT DIL

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  • Hidden Symptoms (Boston & NY: Atlantic Monthly 1986), 142pp., Do., rep. [First Fictions, No. 9] (London: Faber 1988) [as ebook 2012];
  • The Birds of the Innocent Wood (London: Faber 1988);
  • Remembering Light and Stone (London: Faber 1992; rep. 1993);
  • Nothing is Black (London: Faber 1994, 1955), 139[151]pp.;
  • One by One in the Darkness (London: Faber 1996), 188[192]pp.;
  • Authenticity (Faber & Faber 2002), 385pp.;
  • Time Present and Time Past (London: Faber & Faber 2013), 240pp.
For children
  • Snake’s Elbows (London: Orchard 2005), 205pp.;
  • Thanks for Telling Me, Emily (2007);
  • Jasper and the Green Marvel (2011)
  • That Childhood Country (London: Pan 1993) [rep. edn.];
  • Introduction to Kate O’Brien, The Ante-Room [rep.] (London: Virago 1996).

Books reviewed incl. Kathleen Ferguson, The Maid’s Tale, and Aisling Foster, Safe in the Kitchen, in “Summer Books”, Fortnight Review [Belfast] (July-Aug. 1994), p.18.

Contributed to ...
First Fictions [Introduction 9] (London: Faber & Faber 1986), 255pp. CONTENTS: Deborah Moffatt, “When Roger got married”, “Willie’s war”, “The lodger”; Kristien Hemmerechts, “The sixth of the sixth of the year nineteen sixty-six”, “Words”, “Hair”; Douglas Glover, “Fire drill”, “Dog attempts to drown man in Saskatoon: Red”, “The seeker, the snake and the baba”; Dorothy Nimmo, “The healing”, “Wake and call me mother”, and “Rabbits”; Jaci Stephen, “Blood relations, and “The other side of summer; Deirdre Madden, “Hidden symptoms”.

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  • Interview, ‘Darks thoughts from Abroad’, Books Ireland (Summer 1996), pp.157;
  • Geraldine Higgins, ‘“A Place to Bring Anger and Grief”: Deirdre Madden’s Northern Irish Novels’, in Writing Ulster [‘Northern Narratives’, ed. Bill Lazenblatt], 6 (1999), pp.143-59;
  • Gerry Smyth, The Novel and the Nation: Studies in the New Irish Fiction (London: Pluto Press 1997) , pp.117-20 [on Hidden Symptoms];
  • Eamonn Hughes, ‘Belfastards and Derriers’, review of One by One in the Darkness [with other works by Seamus Deane, Robert McLiam Wilson, and Michael Foley], in The Irish Review, 20 [Ideas of Nationhood] (Winter/Spring 1997), pp.151-57
See num. other notices under Commentary [infra].

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Andrea Ashworth, review of Nothing is Black, in Times Literary Supplement (8 July 1994): ‘Madden’s sentences are carefully composed and executed to produce simple, sometimes starkly poetic prose. But the dialogue, although never monotonous, can be monochromatic; in framed discussions, her characters stop doing and start discoursing on set-subjectism, displaying their thoughts in speech whose finish is suspiciously smooth. At such points, Madden’s art is too abstract [...&c.]’

Rory Brennan review of Nothing is Black, in Books Ireland (Sept. 1994), calling it ‘an insightless tale of a woman painter, a kleptomaniacal wife and a divorced Dutch expatriate [also female] who gather near a far-flung village in Donegal’; narrator is the painter. The review is intemperate in several places, speaking expressly of Madden’s inferiority as a writer.

Maxine Jones, review of One by One in the Darkness, in Tribune Magazine (26 May 1996), feels that ‘no other book has left me with such a lasting impression of the hurt of Northern Ireland’. Novel deals with lives of three women set in Northern Ireland, one working for London glassy magazine, another a solicitor in Belfast, who return to the third sister; Cate comes back from London to tell her sisters and her mother that she is pregnant; the sisters’ single status as working women sets them on shifting sands, as well as the murder of their father; Helen returns from Belfast; Sally has never left home. (p.20.)

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Patricia Craig, ‘A Cabinet in Co. Clare’, review of One by One in the Darkness, in Times Literary Supplement (24 May 1996): criticises the vagueness of her information about the terrorist organisations involved in the plot and notes that the father Charlie Quinn was shot in mistake for a brother involved with the IRA. Craig locates Madden’s world in ‘a small bleak area of near Lough Neagh on a dismal afternoon in February’ and describes hers as a ‘lucid voice but one that admits no note of bravado or gaiety [and] creates a thinly populated world in which everyone is more or less fraught and unfulfilled.’ She remarks that Madden has resumed her customary dolefulness; that a thoroughly Catholic sensibility has shaped and goes on shaping her view of things ‘though she has learned to tone down the kind of unnatural and overwrought profession of belief which loomed unduly large in Hidden Symptoms. Craig Complains of the ‘mopishness of characters enduring “strange, sad lives”.’ Further: ‘Her approach to the terrorist element in Northern Irish life is the opposite of a thriller-writer’s: she takes no interest in the mechanics of plot-making [...] what saves her as a writer, and makes her novels likeable, despite their refusal of qualities such as charm, high spirits, robustness and aplomb, is a formidable descriptive gift which is harnessed to the small-scale and quotidian: the lunchtime hush of an Italian hill village; the contents of a china cabinet in Co. Clare.’ (p.20.)

Carlo Gèbler, ‘Specifically personal’, review of One by One in the Darkness in [?Fortnight Review, q. iss.], p.36, offers a summary: a neighbour of the Quinns blows himself up going to plant a bomb; an uncle Brian is harassed by security forces; father killed in error for him; Emily grows up in Ballymena and realises early that the Protestants (Orangemen) hate her just because she is Catholic; later joins Civil Rights marches; Gebler criticises lack of continuity at this level (‘insufficiency of material’ to join up ‘the dots’), but praises ‘the primacy the author ascribes to the personal in human behaviour’, and her ‘determined and admirable commitment to specificity.

Anne Fogarty, review of Authenticity, in The Irish Times (17 Aug. 2002, Weekend, p.8): interconnected stories of Roderic Kennedy, Julia Fitzpatrick and William Armstrong; ‘while the former becomes her lover, the latter, whom she meets as he is on the verge of suicideal despair, exerts a hold over her because he seems to her to embody some authentici but unrealised version of the artist. / Moreoever, the two men appear to be doubles ... Madden’s nuanced narrative, however, shows that such neat contraries are insufficient to describe the turmoil of her protagonists’ lives ... Just as Madden uses her multiple cast of artists to dislodge abstract views of this métier, so too she indcates that art is impossible without the active support of others.’ Speaks of ‘the crystalline exactitude of her style, the oblique rendering of social milieu, and the broken nature of human communication’ as hall-marks of this novelist’s art.

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Eileen Battersby, notice of Molly Fox’s Birthday (2008), in The Irish Times (30 May 2009), Weekend, “Paperbacks”, p.13: ‘Molly Fox is a famous actress and enigma even to her friend, the narrator, an equally well-known playwright. While the narrator stays in Molly’s charming Dublin home battling writer’s block, she considers Molly, who is away in New York. It is Midsummer’s Day, Molly’s birthday. Deirdre Madden’s elegiac seventh novel is a subtle, gentle study about one woman reassessing her life and the various ways in which her friends have interacted with each other. A hint of missed opportunity prevails. The narrator is a forensic observer who watches, listens and remembers. A strong contender for this year’s Orange Prize, Molly Fox is shaped by Madden’s disciplined intelligence, humanity and understanding of how people behave and above all, how they survive. Molly, with her belief in her identity as an actor, who assumes the lives of others, is a survivor, whereas the narrator, whose career began in a gesture towards a deep hurt, has spent her life nursing an impossible love.’

Jeannie Vanacso, ‘Method Writing’, Title New York Times, (23 March 2010), “Sunday Book Review”: ‘Here’s an exercise for the blocked writer: Write what you don’t know about what you know. That’s the approach the unnamed narrator of Deirdre Madden’s ninth novel chooses. She takes her friend of 20 years and revisits memories from their times together, wondering whether she truly knows her. And in doing so, she conquers her writer’s block and creates this novel, Molly Fox’s Birthday. / Madden’s book, a finalist for the Orange Prize, is so honestly told that it feels less like fiction than personal revelation. The action takes place on a single day, June 21, the longest day of the year, which is also (of course) the birthday of an Irish woman named Molly Fox. Molly, as she always insists, is an actor, not an actress (“If I wrote poems would you call me a poetess?”), and the narrator is the playwright who jump-started both their careers with her very first play. While Molly is off performing in New York, the narrator has borrowed her friend’s cluttered home in Dublin, where she tries, with much difficulty, to begin a new play. The narrator used to believe that Molly hated to celebrate her birthday because she was insecure about her age. What the narrator later learned was that June 21 was the day Molly’s mother abandoned her family. [...] The novel is structured as if the narrator were walking through a dark room, feeling the walls for a light switch. Nonetheless, it has form: the conflict, crisis and resolution are interior. It engages our attention and sympathy because the narrator wants to understand Molly. It is the intensity of the wanting that keeps us reading. / The turning point comes with the entrance of a minor character, a fan who has been so moved by one of Molly’s performances that she’s been inspired to ring the bell at Molly’s front door. This visit leads the narrator to a counterintuitive epiphany: “that so much social interchange is inherently false, and real communication can only be achieved in ways that seem strange and artificial.” What better argument is there for art?’ [End; for full version, see RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index or attached.]

Christine Patterson, ‘Deirdre Madden: “The Troubles are almost always in my work at some level’, in The Guardian (14 June 2013): ‘[Quotes:] “The constant genius of Irish letters,” according to Sebastian Barry, a “first-rate novelist” for Richard Ford, and “one of the most original and disturbing writers since Jean Rhys”, wrote Linda Grant. They were all referring to the Irish novelist Deirdre Madden. When I first meet Madden, I am immediately reminded of one of the characters in her latest novel, Time Present and Time Past: Colette is “inordinately kind, and this kindness, suffusing her face, makes her look more attractive than many a cold beauty half her age”. She is a character who embodies one of the central qualities of Madden’s work: a profound and wide-ranging compassion. / It’s there in her first novel, Hidden Symptoms, which came out in 1986, and in her second, The Birds of the Innocent Wood, which won the Somerset Maugham award in 1989, and in her third novel, Remembering Light and Stone. And it’s there in all the novels that follow: in her fourth Nothing is Black, for example, the central character talks about a painting she has bought from a friend, “a touchstone from which she would draw strength, and realize the need for compassion”; in Molly Fox’s Birthday, which was shortlisted for the Orange prize in 2009 (the second time Madden was shortlisted for the prize) the narrator realises that compassion was “one important part of the mystery” of her friend Molly Fox’s brilliance as an actor. She “never judged a character”, says the narrator, whose name we never learn. Nor, it’s clear to anyone reading her work, does her creator. [...]’ [For full version, see RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index or attached.]

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Dermot Bolger, Contemporary Irish Fiction (Picador 1993), gives excerpt from Remembering Light and Stone [1992].

Books in Print (1994), Hidden Symptoms (Boston/NY: Atlantic Monthly 1986; London: Faber 1988); The Birds of the Innocent Wood (London: Faber 1988), Somerset Maugham Award; Remembering Light and Stone (London: Faber 1992, 1993); That Childhood Country (Pan rep. 1993); Nothing is Black (Faber 1994); Food, Home and Society (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan 1900), 387pp; Better Homemaking (Gill & Macmillan 1984).

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Hidden Symptoms (1986) -

Theresa in Belfast: ‘Although it was late June, it was cool and overcast as Theresa returned hoem, and West Belfast looked bleak from the bus window. had it been a city abroad, in France, say, or Germany, she would have been frightened, equating its ugliness with constant danger, but she could cope with Belfast, because she had watched it sink since her childhood from “normality” to its present state. She even found this new Belfast more acceptable than the city of her earliest memories, for the normality had always been forced, a prosperous facade over discrimination and injustice. Just as when she was small she had been very ill and the doctor had diagnosed the illness as measles (for some reason the spots had failed to appear), Ulster before 1969 had been sick but with hidden symptoms. Streets and streets of houses with bricked-up windows and broken fanlights, graffiti on gable walls, soldiers everywhere: Belfast was now like a madman who tears his flesh, puts straws in his hair and screams gibberish. Before, it had resembled the infinitely more sinister figure of the articulare man in a dark, neat suit whose conversation charms and entertains; and whose insanity is apparently only when he says calmly, incidentally, thayta he will club his children to death and eat their entrails [...]’

Robert and Kathy: ‘They made love and Robert lay awake for a long time after Kathy had fallen asleep beside him. He tried to understand what Theresa had been getting at when she spoke of subjectivity: he could think only of evil and violence. He was not sure that he understood anything about evil, but by God it was easy to assimilate! Every day he could take huge mysterious lumps of evil into his consciousness and the only worrying result was the he did not worry. That very day he had been upstairs in a bus which had been overtaken by a lorry carrying meat from the knacker's yard. For well over two miles he had looked down into the tipper, which was full of skinned limbs: long, bloody jawbones; jointed, whip-like tails. It had been a horrendous sight, but he had not eaverted his eyes from the mobile shambles: he had gazed unflinchinging down into it. This was how things were. He had looked as so many ugley and evil things, unsubtle as a lorryload of dead meat, and he had said in his heart that this was how things were. He ahd accepted that lorry. He accepted too much.
 He [Robert] remembered television reports, where the casual camera showed bits of human flesh hanging from barbed wire after a bombing. Firemen shovelled what was left of people into heavy plastic bags, and you could see all tha remained: big burnt black lumps like charred logs. And he could look at such things and be shocked and eat his tea and go out to the theatre and forget about it. He could cope with it when it did not involve him personally. Now he found himself wondering how he would feel if it was Kathy whose flesh was hanging from barbed wire in thin, irregular strips and shifting in the wind like surreal party streamers. How would he feel if the soft little body beside him was to be translated into an anonymous black lump and shovelled into a plastic bag? He tried to tell himself that it was only a ghoulish thought, but he knew that for so many people this sudden change was a reality in the people whome they slept with, ate with, lived with and loved, and his own lack of empathy saddened him. In the darkness he touched Kathy’s sleeping shoulder, and suddenly felt as lonely as Adam. / Gently he awoke her, kissed her and stroked her; whispered lies in her ear. She murmured and giggled, half-awake and half-sleeping. He desperately wanted to bury his fearful loneliness in the blackness of the room and in her thin, warm body, but sex solved nothing: there was only panic and the illusion of union; nothing could protect him. Now he lated hisemlf for having visited his morbid thoughts of violent death upon this innocent person beside him, for he had not really been thinking about her, nor even about how much her death would mean to him. He was afraid that his own innocent body might be destroyed violently and quickly and he had been too cowardly even to imagine such a thing, visiting his fear upon Kathy instead. Suddely, incredibly, he wanted to cry. / “Robert? Robert?” But he did not answer her and he did not cry, because he was ashamed and embarrassed and he did not love her.’ (pp.29-30; available at Google Books - online; accessed 22.09.2017.)

Remembering Light and Stone (1992) [Aisling - on returning to Ireland]: ‘Then I thought of Italy, and at once the decision came into my mind, clear and resolute in a way it would never have been had I mulled over the question for weeks. I would leave S. Giorgio. When I went back to Italy, I would stay only as long as was necessary to pack mythings, and work my notice in the factory. I’d come back here.’ (London 1992; rep. 1993, p.180.)

One by One in the Darkness (1996): ‘[…] it was something more than the English being less comfortable with the bereaved than the Irish were. What they were thinking only dawned on her slowly, and it was so horrible that she shrank away, afraid of having to confront it until she was forced to do so; and of course it wasn’t long before that happened. /  One day, about three weeks after she returned to work, a journalist who had often done freelance work for the magazine in the past had called in to discuss a supplement which had been commissioned in Cate’s absence. As she looked through the initial work he’d brought along she remarked, “I’m sorry I wasn’t in on this from the start, but I was in Ireland”; and she didn’t know why she added, “My father died.” / “Yes, I know,” the man replied. “I read about it in the papers.” Cate lifted her head from the material she had been glancing through and stared hard at the man, but he stared back coldly [91] at her, and did not speak. “He thinks my father was a terrorist,” she said to herself. “He thinks that he brought his fate upon himself; that he deserves the death he got.”’ (See longer extracts.)

Snake’s Elbows (2005): ‘Extraordinary things happen in Woodford when kind and timid pianist, Barney Barrington, and his enemy, Jasper Jellit, both want to buy the same painting.’ Sundry reviews: ‘With its unlikely mix of illegal arms dealing, art auctions, telepathic pets and magic fudge, this is a morality tale with a difference and a thoroughly entertaining read. A wry and mocking take on contemporary culture (not least the fickleness of tabloid journalism), this book evokes a whole community with a marvellous subtlety of tone and lightness of touch. The writing is constantly distinguished and supple. [...] intriguing title to its triumphant end, it's a slice of wise and playful brilliance. [...] delightful and funny tale with just a touch of Dahl [...] seemingly loopy [...q]uite simply marvellous [...] quirky and delightfully humourous story of some strange goings-on in a small town.’ (COPAC, online; acessed 28.08.2010.)

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Hidden Symptoms (1986): After her brother’s brutal murder, a twenty-two-year-old university student in Belfast is torn by her conflicting feelings of spirituality, as her religion tortures more than comforts her. (COPAC.)

Remembering Light and Stone (1992): ‘Aisling has gone to Europe to get over the death of her parents. She is a disturbed, strange young Irish woman, out of sorts with herself and at odds with the world. It is 1989 and Europe is in turmoil. She falls in love and after various crises becomes reconciled to who she is.’ (COPAC.)

Nothing is Black (1994): ‘A story of three women who, for different reasons, find themselves in a remote part of Donegal at a defining moment in their lives. The author won the Somerset Maugham Prize for "The Birds of the Innocent Wood", and her "Remembering Light and Stone" was nominated for the 1992 Booker Prize.’ (COPAC.)

One By One in Darkness (1996): ‘A story about three Northern Irish sisters. It has a double narrative, part of which describes their childhood and shows the impact of the political changes and the violence of the late-1960s upon the people of Ulster, as the wholeness and coherence of early childhood gradually break down.’ (COPAC.)

Molly Fox’s Birthday (2008): ‘Dublin, Midsummer: While absent in New York, the celebrated actor Molly Fox has loaned her house to a playwright friend, who is struggling to write a new work. Over the course of this, the longest day of the year, the playwright reflects upon her own life, Molly’s, and that of their mutual friend Andrew, whom she has known since university. Why does Molly never celebrate her own birthday, which falls upon this day? What does it mean to be a playwright or an actor? How have their relationships evolved over the course of many years? Molly Fox’s Birthday calls into question the ideas that we hold about who we are; and shows how the past informs the present in ways we might never have imagined.’ (COPAC.)

Time Present and Time Past (2013): Taking its title from the “Burnt Norton” section of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets - “Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future, / And time future contained in time past” - a portrait of Irish family life today built up around around Fintan Terence Buckley, a middle-aged legal consultant who experiences auditory hallucinations and explores the work of memory amid a family including Rob and Niall, his sons - one alpha-male and the other more like him - Joan, his happily widowed mother, his wife Colette and his sister Martina, and Lucy, his young daughter. (See Adam O'Riordain, review, in The Telegraphy, 6 June 2013 - available online; accessed 27.07.2017.)

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