Gráinne by Keith Roberts

Kerosina, 1985, 175 p.

Gráinne cover

A man lies in a hospital bed being asked questions. In answer he begins to tell his life story. It is a curiously detached process: he thinks of himself in the third person, referring to himself as Bevan. (In this Roberts may be utilising aspects of his own young life to flesh out his story – or carrying out a double bluff to make us think so. He used the name Alastair Bevan as an early pseudonym.) The man doesn’t name some of the characters from his early life, merely gives them titles; The Mother, The Headmaster. His early discomfort on dealing with women is well conveyed. Things change when he meets the enigmatic Gráinne, however, though to begin with he only worships her from afar. She is named for the mythical Irish princess.

Roberts’s prose is oblique, meaning is not immediately transparent, it has to be teased out by the reader. By the end, though, the process does become less opaque. The intercutting between “Bevan”’s reminiscences and his interlocutors is an important part of this. It highlights and comments on his tale, allows Roberts to ask the questions the reader might – and answer them. He tells his story in five “sessions” named Anuloma, Abhassara, Brahmacariya, Aranyaka and Upanishad respectively. These titles are not from Irish mythology but relate to Hindu customs and tales.

The Gráinne ‘Bevan’ remembers has aspects of a goddess, or an everywoman, and she has the gift of prophecy. “Right down through history religion had backed the state. She said the end result of money sticks” – some man had invented these centuries ago and things had gone downhill from then on – “was three World Wars. Two down and one to go. She said she wanted something to survive, But not a God. Or it would all start again.”

Some time after their relationship ends she lands a job as a TV presenter on Channel Five (a fifth UK TV channel was fictitious in 1985) and becomes famous. As part of a project she is working on she asks the advertising firm Bevan works for to devise a campaign for her, knowing he will have the idea she wants. The ramifications of her programme cause the authorities some problems and this is the ultimate reason for Bevan’s questioning. It is only at this point that aspects of SF creep in to the novel. In common with most of Roberts’s œuvre the whole, however, has an unsettling effect, always teetering on the borderline of the fantastic, as if Gráinne might have been a figment of ‘Bevan’’s imagination.

For Roberts completists this is a must though those unfamiliar with his work might be best to start with earlier novels.

Pedant’s corner:- I note “mike” as the abbreviation for microphone. Hurrah!
Otherwise; woffle (waffle,) Guy Fawkes’ night (I believe it’s just Guy Fawkes night; if it had an apostrophe it would have to be Guy Fawkes’s night,) staunched (stanched,) “an old tobacconists” (tobacconist’s,) “his Dad had given for his twenty-first” (had given him?) Fitzsimmons’ (Fitzsimmons’s,) Éirann (more usually Éireann,) verandah (I prefer veranda.) “He left the door stood open” (standing open,) “a line of men in saffron robes plod east” (a line plods.)

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