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Deirdre Madden: One by One in the Darkness

One by one in the darkness, the sisters slept. Those are the final words of this novel, about a week in the life and the life overall of three sisters from Northern Ireland. Cate (née Kate) has left and gone to live in London, where she works as a magazine editor. She has come back on a holiday pregnant, though the father is unknown (at least to us and her family). Helen is a solicitor (a lawyer), whose firm frequently acts for IRA members. They are currently acting for an IRA man alleged to have committed a murder, though his, mother, naturally, does not think he has done it. Her main male friend is David, who is gay and lives with his friend, Steve, who is from London. Finally, there is the youngest, Sally, who is closest to their mother and who is a primary school teacher. Their father was killed because he was allegedly involved with the IRA though, in fact, he was not.

Most of the novel is taken up with the reminiscences of the three girls and their mother, both as relates to their family and friends and as relates to the Troubles. Though not directly involved in political activities, they are all touched by it and not just by the death of the father. Sally’s story of protecting her elementary school class from what she fears is a terrorist (it turns out to be only a man running to shelter from the rain) is the most poignant story but other stories, such as the routine army checks, the teenage boy beaten up by the army and the reactions of outsiders, such as David’s friend, Steve (who is from London) to the violence, bring out how different life is when such a situation exists.

There is no great plot, no great ideas, just a portrait, very well told, of a nation at war with itself and its effect on the people of that nation and how they, somehow, manage to stay who they are.

Publishing history

First published in 1996 by Faber and Faber