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The All of It

Jeannette Haien's The All of It beguilingly occupies the thinly-populated frontier between the novel and novella. At just under 150 pages, it is rather long for a novella, but its concision is characteristic of short fiction rather than long. What is essentially a short story frames the telling of a long tale. The events related in the tale occurred nearly fifty years before the present action, which in turn is confined to the space of four days. If nothing else, The All of It is a beautiful composition.

But this is not a case of "nothing else." Now almost twenty years old, The All of It looks back to the relatively unadvanced Ireland of the Thirties. We see a beautiful widow at two points in her life, her teens and her sixties. We also have a middle-aged priest, who moves from a determination to root out an old sin to the contemplation of committing  a new one. Surprised by the woman's companionate charm, he is drawn to consider abandoning his celibacy, and we are left with the understanding that the widow will see to it that this does not happen.

The writing is clear-eyed and poetic, by which I mean that Ms Haien bends language to signal and provoke ineffable feelings.

Enda's house, he supposed with a sink of his heart, would be alike: dark, shut and still.

His mind tripped then on the memory of it having been but yesterday - only yesterday! - he'd driven in a retreating way up the lane in the opposite direction. But that had been after. After so much: after Kevin's death, after Enda's revelations of Kevin and herself; after the provoke and claw of his sin against her; after Kevin's funeral Mass and burial; after Enda's tacit forgiveness of him in the witnessing, powerful surround of the cemetery; after ... Afters to do with the past. And now, had he come to the point of the poet's final, crucially cresting wave when the future begins, after?

He felt so.

There is no way to say more about The All of It without spilling some of its beans, so I will spill the one that falls first to the ground. The story begins with the priest, Father Declan de Loughry, setting out to fish a "beat," or length, of a river, rented by the day for the purpose, despite very bad weather and the gloomy prognostications of the estate's head ghillie. Gradually, Father Declan's thoughts slip back to remarkable revelations to which he has just been made privy. Attending the deathbed of a parishioner, Kevin Dennehy, he has learned that the dying man and his wife are not only not married but brother and sister. Horried, at first, by this long-term sin, and by the scandal as well - he can think of no more attractive couple in his cure - Father Declan agrees to let Kevin's widow, Enda, tell him her story without interruption - "the all of it," as she calls it - and to do so outside the confessional. Her tale begins in a remote stone cottage, where the motherless children are at the mercy of a feckless, bewildered father who, when the children enter their teens, takes to locking them up in an upper room for extended periods. The last of these stretches for nearly two days, and it is during this incarceration that Kevin resolves to take off with Enda - if their father ever returns (he might well have stumbled among the rocks and broken his skull) and unlocks the door. It also during these hours that, to keep warm, the siblings lie close together. The writing becomes unutterably graceful.

"What do you mean, Enda, when you say you 'took to each other'?"

Her calm gave way to a faint confusion, but her voice remained steady. Kevin - for the comfort, father - against the cold, like he was a blanket, he covered me with himself."

"Sexually?" Said, the syllables hung.

"Aye," she said softly, "it came to that, but not as a sin."

Not (he spoke to himself) as lust, or as an act rehearsed and wickedly anticipated in the imagination, but as a grave, countering vitality against the rot of despair. Still: "'Not as a sin'?" he gave quietly back to her.

"As I said, things being the way they were, it but happened.," she answered simply.

From this point on, Father Declan will have grave difficulty keeping separate his two roles in Enda's life, friend and confessor. Perhaps it would be better to say that it has trouble keeping them together in one body. An act of incest, heinous as it may be, is an offense of a very different order from the protracted fraud of living as man and wife for forty-eight years, and as the tale winds up, with Kevin and Enda having worked their way from Donegal to Connemara, Father Declan suffers a failure of imagination. Turning the sacrament of Absolution, which he is perhaps too eager to bestow, on its head, he insults Enda by charging her with a sin that he presumes her to have committed. In the confusion of his shame, he begins to fall in love with her.

The All of It abounds in quiet linguistic pleasures, in perfectly-captured details that never interrupted the narrative current. It is an amazingly accomplished first novel. I often talk of the pleasure of re-reading books, but it's a pleasure that I don't get to enjoy very often in my inefficient dotage. Nevertheless, I recommend The All of It as a likely book to enjoy a second time. (November 2005)

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