"Heart and Soul," by Maeve Binchy; "Shannon," by Frank Delaney
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
HEART AND SOUL
By Maeve Binchy
Knopf. 418 pp. $26.95
By Frank Delaney
Random House. 393 pp. $26
You don't have to be Irish -- or wait for St. Patrick's Day -- to give these entertaining novels by Maeve Binchy and Frank Delaney a try.
Binchy's latest, "Heart and Soul," begins with the establishment of St. Brigid's heart clinic, a small, self-contained community within Dublin. Clara Casey, a cardiologist whose complex personal life includes a pair of difficult daughters and a philandering ex-husband, agrees to run the fledgling clinic for a single year and begins the process of recruiting a suitable staff. The intertwined stories of these doctors and nurses, together with the patients who come to rely on them, form the substance of this likable, sometimes frustrating book.
Binchy is adept at juggling multiple story lines and creating genuine drama out of the quotidian problems of life: illness, accidents, misunderstandings, romantic and sexual betrayal. Her work reflects a pervasive generosity of spirit and projects a reassuring quality that is, I think, a central element of her enduring popularity. Binchy believes, with bedrock certainty, that people who possess the necessary measure of good sense, goodwill and energy can overcome, or learn to endure, whatever comes their way. That can be a potent -- and very welcome -- message. Ultimately, the linked stories in "Heart and Soul" constitute an ongoing account of "battles . . . fought and won," of crippling circumstances, like the illnesses that afflict the patients at St. Brigid's, brought slowly but inevitably under human control.
All this might resonate more powerfully if the writing were more distinguished. Unfortunately, Binchy's language -- both dialogue and prose -- is rarely more than workmanlike and efficient. At its worst, it descends to the level of low-rent romance fiction. When a priest confronts a deranged young woman, his "big, honest face was aghast at her cunning." A pair of conspiring matchmakers succeed "beyond their wildest dreams." Speaking of her ailing husband, one woman declares: "If anything happened to Aidan, I would not want to live. . . . I couldn't bear a day or night without him now and without seeing his dear face." Despite such lapses, this good-hearted, otherwise quite readable novel offers many honest pleasures and deserves the success it will no doubt achieve.
Like Binchy, Frank Delaney is a middling stylist but an engaging, often compelling storyteller. His best-selling epic, "Ireland" (2005), recapitulates the nation's history though the songs and stories of a wandering bard. His latest, "Shannon," is considerably narrower in scope, focusing on the gradual healing of a single damaged soul during the troubled summer of 1922.
The title refers both to the long, meandering river that dominates the Irish landscape and to the novel's deeply disturbed protagonist, Robert Shannon. Father Shannon has come to Ireland in the hope of recovering from two distinct crises: his experiences as a chaplain in World War I, which left him traumatized and virtually catatonic, and his subsequent encounter with corruption at the highest levels of the archdiocese of Boston. He arrives in Ireland at a crucial historical moment: The Irish Civil War, a byproduct of the divisive Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, has just broken out, and the countryside is up in arms. Against this backdrop of political strife and imminent personal danger, Shannon travels up and down the river, searching for his family's roots and for the sense of spiritual coherence that disappeared in the trenches of France.
Delaney handles Shannon's therapeutic journey with sympathy and skill, introducing a diverse cast of Irish characters and layering the narrative with the sort of arcane native lore -- historical, cultural and geographic -- that adds a welcome depth of background to the central story. His descriptions of the condition once known as shell shock are detailed and convincing, though his obvious affection for his suffering hero sometimes leads to simplistic overstatement. For example, he describes the young, prewar Father Shannon as a man "incapable of anything but good," a daunting claim to make on anyone's behalf.
A more serious problem is the introduction of a dubious -- and lengthy -- subplot involving a hired killer dispatched to Ireland to prevent Father Shannon from divulging what he knows about corrupt practices in America's Catholic hierarchy. This unfortunate turn toward melodrama undermines the narrative for long, unnecessary stretches but doesn't quite destroy it. In the end, Delaney holds his flawed creation together through his considerable narrative gifts and his unapologetic belief in human decency and the healing power of the past.