Monday, November 02, 2020

Book Review: The Winter Dress

Though she probably didn't plan it that way, there are resonances for Ireland today in Angela Keogh's novel The Winter Dress, writes Brian Byrne. Not only because it is set against the background of a pandemic, but it's also a story of resilience in adversity.

The Winter Dress is not a book I'd normally buy for myself. Fiction set 700 years ago is not particularly my thing. But I had met Angela Keogh once, when she directed John MacKenna in his performance of The Mental in Woodbine Books in Kilcullen. When I went to buy John's latest publication, a collection of his Sunday Miscellany radio essays, Woodbine's Dawn Behan suggested I have a look at this one too. They were both from the new publishing imprint Angela and John have set up — The Harvest Press.

There's a sub-inscription on the book's cover. 'If no one tells the story, there will be nothing left but bones'. I'm very glad Angela Keogh has told this story, because in its short 200 pages it brings to life a time when my Liffey-side home town of Kilcullen was only in formation, following the building of a bridge here in 1319.

There's nothing about Kilcullen in the book. But Castledermot I know, it's only a bit down the way towards Carlow. Described under the original name of the Norman-era town, Tristledermot, this book illustrates its importance at that time much more compellingly than many history accounts will do.

Though it is set against the Black Death pandemic, in effect the story only begins and ends with that background. In between is the telling of their times and occasionally interleaving lives by Rose and Brother John. Respectively they are a 'wild Irish' woman and a friar scribe. She from the Irish natives outside the walls of Tristledermot, hence the designation 'wild', who has come to live inside the walls as a dressmaker. John is a tired man of the cloth whose travels and travails have not brought him closer to God. Instead of doing what he was trained for, to illuminate the glory of the Deity, he now prefers to use his writing skills to record the stories of ordinary people.

To tell their stories, Angela Keogh has drawn on history, myth, and her instinct that under the skin people have not changed in 700 years. Whether in the 14th or 21st century, we all try to live and to hopefully prosper. We all look for comfort and to be loved. We all have the same triumphs and failings. It doesn't really matter that the ultimate communications technology then was a pen and a parchment, or that today it is global internet — the best communication is to hold and be held. It's what we all yearn for. Rose the dressmaker did, marrying four times in her search. John the brother monk did, realising too late that clinging to his vocation made it impossible.

At the time of this book there were three languages spoken in Tristledermot. The French of the Normans, the English of the Saxons, and the Irish of the natives. The walled town, with its guards on every gate to exact tolls for entry and to keep out the unwanted, was a melting pot where all three groups managed to work out how to live together despite their differences. Today's Ireland of many nationalities is something like that, too.

The language of Angela Keogh's book is the same as we would use today. It is comfortable to read, clear in its meaning, earthy and real. What we have in The Winter Dress is a simple account of the complexity of life. About two people and those others with whom they interact. Their needs and their deeds are similar to what we all want and do today. Pandemics will come and go, but humanity is a never ending story.

The Winter Dress is another example of that story told well. 

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