by Maniza Naqvi
Sue Hubbard's lovingly mapped novel Rainsongs is a gentle gem of quietly shimmering intellect. I read it twice to savor its sense of place. It is rooted in the abstractions of land and memory, the magical thinking of a bereaved woman.
Hubbard's expressive talent is in full display through her descriptions of the south western Irish landscape of Kerry, so that the reader feels a sense of belonging and a resonance with its emotional and social fabric. I read this book the week before the year changed, curled up in bed, tucked in against the winters bone-chilling cold outside, deeply aware that I was savoring a rarity, seeing through words a remote land. Seeing it through the eyes of the main character, Martha Cassidy who, herself not Irish, has returned after a period of decades of absence.
In the end of December 2007 Martha Cassidy is a woman in mourning who returns to her late husband's cottage in search of solace from grief. Rainsongs approaches the peril and remoteness of relief through the certitude of both storm and calm and its attendant pain on the journey towards consolation. Martha is a beautiful, mature-minded, self-assured woman in her fifties, focused on her own inner journey. Yet she is neither weak nor in need of comforting or saving. And perhaps because of her demeanor, is orbited by men who knew her husband and, as in the case of the young poet-musician, Colm Nolan, is the same age as her son.
Driving rain and wind are the song and silence of the inner drama where Rainsongs will take you. That place within yourself of sorrows, solitudes and solaces, the spaces you have been through, the ones you are passing through, the ones you surely will go through. That place is lit up momentarily like a revelation, then gone and, in the novel, searched out metaphorically through the beam of a lighthouse – beckoning, saving, warning – on Skellig island as it sweeps across the darkened sea and landscape on Bolus Head and shines into the room in the cottage where Martha sleeps. Periodically, as if a monitor for a heartbeat.
The lighthouse, and a promise not kept and to be kept, are the central metaphors to Rainsongs as in Virginia Woolf's To The Light House, which Sue Hubbard quotes from and writes into her novel. The child forever a child, a promise forever a promise, left to be fulfilled. A void but also a reason.
Here, when there is nothing else left, there is always the ocean. Martha finds her husband's writing in a notebook, speaking these words to himself as to her, as she feels their common sorrow for what, for a long time, remains the book's central unnamed loss. Yet it is Martha's husband, who seemed to be a creature of cities, whose homeland this is, whose ancestors belonged here, who Martha discovers did, after all, most belong here in this cottage where he came so often without her to face his own demons. Here, in his ancestral land she tries to reclaim him and what he, himself, may have tried to reclaim and, in doing so, intensely, notes the presence of every small, new and ancient detail of the place, both absent and present.
But it is towards the sea, the ever-present vast and changing sea, and the Skelligs that Sue Hubbard, an accomplished, poet, novelist and art critic, grounds us, in the fragility of a curragh in the 6th century, amongst monks and food supplies and sacred texts, in lashing seas churned by a sudden weather change – as the weather here is wont to do – seeking pain and peril, on their way to sacred solitude, in her remarkable and poetically crafted novel:
The sails of their curragh are full. The rowlocks slick. Ten young alders have been felled for timber and eight oxen hides soaked for days in ash-filled water. The yellow fat scraped off with knives, then dressed with sheep tallow and polished smooth with round stones. Wet wood creaks against leather.
In Ulysses, Joyce had us facing the sea from a position of strength and surety in a tower. A Martello tower built as fortresses of defense by the British Empire inhabited by likeminded friends with a cynical and cheerful Buck Mulligan, a medical student, irreverently quoting scripture in Latin, Introibo ad altare Dei, "I shall go in to the altar of God." Hubbard opens her novel with the monks on their way to establish a monastery, courting grim peril over choppy waters with the certitude of seeing the face of God. Whatever may come they will seek the Guidance of God, Domine dirige nos.
Rainsongs is a fast paced and captivating story of love for individuals and ideas, expressed through fealty to land and the recognition of the stories that have gone before and will most likely follow, watched over and protected by the beam of a lighthouse tower. A land that mourns all those who are lost, through death or emigration, to cities or further on past the end, the edge to America. And forever will it be so.
Beyond this edge of Europe the Skellig Islands lie a destination that awaits us, towards which we are bound, with the baggage of everything we know and value from the beginning of the novel. On the larger of the two the Christian monastery established in the 6th century provided the monks with pristine and punishing isolation. There is also a lighthouse. The islands are home and sanctuary, like the ancient ark, to endangered species. Colonies of seabirds: puffins, gannet and peregrine nest and breed here. The surrounding waters are abundant with wildlife, minke and beaked whale, dolphin, grey seal and leatherback turtle.
But this region has, in the past decades, felt the windfall and fall out of economic prosperity experienced by Ireland's Celtic Tiger. Its rural stone cottages, country lanes and fields of peat, bog, bracken and gorse have begun to vanish; endangered by the flood of street lights disappearing the dark night and stars, and the new bungalows and their attendant concrete lions guarding paved driveways, which cater to the new rural residents: holiday makers and those commuting to their urban job centers.
Hubbard describes, reverentially, this landscape: the bog, the bracken, the glens, the wet gorse, the warmth of tea and whiskey and burning turf in the fireplace. But it is the landscape and seas which are the novel's sacred protagonists. Their moods of fog, mist and rain and sudden sunlight, mirroring the emotions and character of Martha and the other main characters, Paddy O'Connell a neighboring dairy farmer, Eugene Riordan a real estate developer, Colm Nolan the poet-musician and smallholder. Brendan, her husband, and Bruno, her son.
Rainsongs reveals the physical layers of the land through its historical structures, as well as through the recalling of Irish writers who have woven and mapped its poetic and lyrical emotional narrative. Hubbard describes Ballinskellig and Bolus Head with such loving detail, as though memorizing by heart its actual geography and, by doing so, makes herself and the reader belong to it as only a foreigner can do —in full knowledge that the stay is temporary, and they must remember and take with them all there is to know of its factual history.
She writes lyrically and poetically, as much as she paints with her words, for she is a published poet as well as a novelist. Her tale of loss and solace gently unfolds as though a poetic historiography. It is a soulful book, endowing with a spiritual reverence the description of landscape as only a poet and an informed writer's secular eye can do. Rainsongs' will create a longing in your heart to retreat to that place, from where you can see the two rocks beyond which lies the vast ocean and the certitude of America.
Ahead the sky and ocean merge in a grey veil that stretches away towards America. How he loves this place. The savagery, the untamed wildness. Here on the edge of the land, the edge of Europe. He can feel it in his bones, the threads and connections running back through the centuries.
James Joyce, John Bannville, William Trevor, too, brought in the sea to mirror mood-swings, emotional upheaval and transition. Sue Hubbard joins them in taking me to Ireland and it will remain a part of me, though perhaps I will never be fortunate enough to go there. Rainsongs unfolds and reveals itself, as an act of consolation, the land will endure long after Martha is gone, long after the others are gone. The place is both animate and inanimate. It breaths and is the soul of everything that will be when they are no more. The landscape is. It is memory. Without end.
Rainsongs can be ordered here:
Sue Hubbard's other books include: Poetry: Everything Begins with the Skin (Enithtarmon), Ghost Station (Salt), The Forgetting and Remembering of Air (Salt)
Fiction: Depth of Field, (Dewi Lewis), Rothko's Red (Salt), Girl in White (Cinnamon Press)
Art: Adventures in Art (Other Criteria)