"I think sometimes you're possessed," says the narrator's mother when he probes her about family history. "Can't you just let the past be past?" Like everyone else in this family from Derry, Northern Ireland, the narrator in Seamus Deane's Reading in the Dark is haunted by the past. Unlike his parents, who harbor secrets they cannot tell each other, the narrator is determined to unearth the story behind his family's unspoken anguish. These family secrets are inseparable from Northern Ireland's violent political history and from the national culture of storytelling in which ghosts and hauntings are part of everyday life.
The narrative covers the period 1945 to 1971. Although Reading in the Dark is a novel, it is written like a memoir constructed from brief, distilled childhood recollections. These short, often unrelated chapters fit together like pieces of a jigsaw, gradually filling in the gaps of family history. The narrator tells of his fascination with an Irish novel about the great rebellion of 1798 and how his reading of it was interrupted when his brother insisted he turn off the light.
In the dark, he would go on "reading" the novel in his mind, as he imagined ways the plot might proceed. He is similarly "in the dark" about his family until he gleans bits of information about his father's brother, Eddie, and the reasons behind the family feud.
The act of storytelling is central to the novel because of the political and emotional consequences of telling the truth. Each level of truth the narrator uncovers puts greater distance between he and his parents. In the opening chapter, his mother sees a ghost on the staircase landing. "There's something between us. A shadow," she says. This "shadow" foreshadows what is to come when the boy learns about his mother's...