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Bert Wright in The Sunday Times
Bert Wright's Sunday Times review of Grace's Day
A long time ago I had three sisters and we lived on an island,” begins William Wall’s fifth novel, in a lyrical opening chapter that neatly adumbrates the tale to be told, and piques the reader’s interest in the most wonderful way. The speaker is Grace, the eldest of the three sisters who, it seems, never lived up to her name. A self-confessed “awkward child”, she remains so “all these years later”. Straight away, the reliability of one of two principal narrators is called into question. With its garden facing the setting sun, its apple trees and fuschia, the dry stone walls and sheep and the skinny-dipping in the crystal-clear water, the island sounds idyllic but can we take the rhapsody at face value? To complete the tableau, a romantic poet figure, Richard Wood, regularly glides in to visit in his yawl, The Iliad.
As Wood drops anchor, Wall delivers what Kate Atkinson once called one of “his metaphors to die for”. When Grace swims down the chain “hauling [herself] deeper, hand over hand until [she] could stand on the bottom” she sees her “footprints on the seabed”. It’s a striking image and if, as is often said, all artists aim to leave a footprint in the sand, Wall seems to be working on it in this brilliant opening section. There is also a hint of the narrative scepticism which permeates the entire novel. “Or perhaps that’s not how it happened” Grace muses; “what I remember and what I forget may be one and the same thing.” Thus, the story of three islands and three sisters is delicately foreshadowed with a warning that all may not be as it seems.
Dysfunctional families are staples of Irish fiction but the Newman clan yields to none in the misery stakes. Tom, the father, is a writer who chronicles his family’s rustic self-sufficiency in colour pieces for The Guardian, taking great care to spend as little time as possible roughing it en famille. His radical wife Jane is complicit, believing that “children should be told everything and treated as adults”, in that hippyish 1960s sort of way. For the children, there is freedom, fresh air, and the rhythm of the seasons but, as Grace laments, “the dynamic by which we related was frightening and selfish and destructive”. Less of a home, more “a film set of my father’s devising”, Castle Island — with all its secrets, intrigues and dramas — turns out to be a toxic setting for child-rearing.
While the children run wild, Jane and Richard Wood become lovers and life rumbles on chaotically until a terrible thing happens and the illusion of tranquillity is shattered. Climbing on the ruined watchtower, youngest daughter Em suffers a tragic accident which plunges the family into a maelstrom of grief and guilt that will poison their relationships forever. In its portrayal of a simple twist of fate with huge repercussions, acute readers may hear echoes of Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Like McEwan, Wall seems to share an ambivalent view of what, almost a century earlier, Virginia Woolf dismissively dubbed “materialist” fiction that skirts around the mysteries of the inner life. The text is littered with expressions of doubt and uncertainty that we can ever really know what goes on in other people’s minds. “Nobody knows how families work or fail,” Grace protests; “tomorrow is a spinning coin, heads or tails, nobody knows which is better.” The past is unknowable and we should never trust anyone who has a simple tale to tell.
But the Newmans’ tale is far from simple and with the narrative burden passing between sisters Grace and Jeannie, the reader must choose which of their conflicting post-Castle Island stories to believe. The road to final enlightenment proves to be a long one involving two more islands, breakdowns, marriages, divorces and deaths culminating in a dinner-party showdown which for viciousness would leave Abigail’s Party in the ha’penny place. There is one tale which Tom never gets to tell because Grace opportunistically steals the manuscript from his study, only to discover it reveals the true depth of his betrayal of family. Her whole life has been a quest for revenge and in a satisfying coda she exacts it in a manner that is apposite and best left for the reader to discover.
This is a novel about a family “on the cusp of desolation” and so pervasive and oppressive is the climate of unrelenting misery, it’s close to miraculous that the Cork novelist succeeds in crafting something as compelling as Grace’s Day. That he succeeds is testimony to his immense skill as a writer. At a time when neophytes are routinely showered with praise, it’s time to appreciate an underrated veteran at the peak of his powers.
Review of Grace's Day at The Digital Fix
Read an excerpt from Grace's Day
One day on our island my sister Jeannie ran in to say that she had seen a whale in the sound and I ran out after her, my mother calling me: Grace, it’s your day, take Em. But I was too excited. And there were three fin-whales making their way into the rising tide. We heard their breathing. It carried perfectly in the still grey air. It was reflected back at us by the low cloud. The sea was still and burnished. We ran along the rocks watching for their breaching. We decided it was a mother, a father and a calf. They were in no hurry. When we reached the beacon, a small unlit concrete marker indicating the western end of the island, we watched them breaching and diving into the distance until we could see them no more. But they left behind their calmness and the unhurried but forceful sound of their blows. We were wearing our summer shorts, and so, once the whales were no longer to be seen, I pulled mine off, threw Jeannie my shirt and plunged in and swam out into the rising tide and allowed myself to be carried along outside everything and back to the anchorage. That was how, so far out, drifting like a seal in the tide, I saw my mother kissing Richard Wood against the gable of our house. It did not come as a shock or a surprise but I felt a sickening sense of guilt and shame and I allowed myself to be carried past the anchored yawl and too far out into the sound, so that it was a struggle and a hard swim to get back. My sisters, Jeannie and Em, watched me sullenly for a long time. I think if I had drowned they would have watched that too with the same sullen disinterest. When I came ashore I was exhausted. I threw myself down on the strand and lay staring at the clouds for a long time. My mother was wearing her slacks and a jumper. Her sleeves were rolled back. She had put on weight and I could clearly see the bulge of her stomach low down, pressed against his belt. His hands were on her back inside the jumper. They could not have been seen from the shore. At that time my father was already in England. His name was mentioned in newspapers and from time to time when he wrote home, usually sending a cheque, he included clippings and reviews.
It’s possible that Jeannie already hated me because while I lay on the sand she prised a large stone out of the shale and brought it steadfastly towards me, approaching from behind, and dropped it on my chest. The shock almost stopped my breath. I think she may well have been trying to kill me, but at five or six she simply didn’t have the height to do it. The stone simply didn’t reach a sufficient velocity. It landed flat and made a flat sound that I heard in my body rather than felt and I was too stunned to cry. I feel certain she dropped it on my chest rather than my head because she wanted to stop my heart. Had she been older she would have tried for my brain instead.
By the time I had recovered my breath she was gone. I searched for her, steadily and ruthlessly working my way west through the hiding places that I knew, and found her near the old tower, crouched in the bracken. She had already forgotten why she was hiding. She had feathers and a collection of bracken fronds, playing some game that involved talking in voices. She did not hear my approach. I caught her from behind by the hair, which was shoulder length at that time, and swung her onto her back. I was on her then and we fought hard, scratching and pulling and in the end we had each other by the hair, slapping and pinching and kicking until rolling off me she struck her head on a stone and began to cry. I can see her now, a pitiful, snotty-nosed waif curled in a ball, holding her head and wailing for her mother. Now I feel nothing but shame at the memory but at the time I laughed at her, because children know that laughing is the most hurtful reaction to pain, and she ran away again.
She was gone for the rest of the day and we had to search the island to bring her home for tea. By then the calm was gone and Richard Wood was talking anxiously about his anchor and declaring repeatedly that he should make a run for it, and my mother was pressing him to stay.
Waiting for Grace's Day to dawn - my Irish Times essay on the writing of Grace's Day
Grace’s Day began for me (appropriately at dawn) as a single sentence: “There were three islands and they were youth, childhood and age, and I searched for my father in every one.”
I don’t know where it came from: it was there in my head when I woke on a July morning 10 years ago, insistently demanding to be noticed, like a bird tapping at the window. I wrote it down and as I wrote I became convinced that the voice was a woman’s. I don’t know why. Objectively, there is nothing in the words that determines a gender. It was just a hunch, an instinct. Maybe whatever brought the sentence to my head during the hours of sleep was part of a bigger dream. It’s often like that for me, and that initial gift of a phrase gives me a voice in which to tell the story – a magical, and rare, moment in my working day.
But the sentence also presented me with a question: which islands? Almost immediately I knew the answer. The story would unfold, for the most part, in three places – in Ireland, England and Italy, in particular places that I know and love.
It opens on Castle Island, off the coast of west Cork, a beautiful empty rock facing the majesty of the Atlantic (though I imagine it further offshore than it actually is). The house where Grace and Jeannie and their family live is, in reality, a ruin on the eastern shore. It looks onto a little pebble beach and the sound that separates it from Horse Island.
It was populated until some time after the Great Famine but all that remain now are the shells of the dwellings, the dry-stone walls, a ruined castle on the cliff above the pier – a place that plays a fatal role in the novel – and sheep. This is Grace’s habitat.
The second island is The Isle Of Wight where an aunt, who was like a second mother to me, lived and where I spent many holidays as a teenager. I grew to love the chalky coast that fell into the sea after every storm, revealing fossils for the picking. I still have a fossilised sea-urchin that I found at my feet after a swim. Jeannie, the teenager who will grow up to be a geologist, is happiest here, collecting dinosaur bones and stones.
The third and final island is Procida in the Bay of Naples, the most densely populated rural area in Europe. It’s the setting for the beautiful Massimo Troisi/Michael Bradford film Il Postino (The Postman). I fell in love with the place many years ago and have struggled to write about it ever since. It is the setting for the denouement of the novel, the polar opposite of the first island surrounded by our cold North Atlantic. The conflict of the ending is, I hope, counterpointed by the luxurious and communal life of the Mediterranean.
Triads and triangles, both verbal and human, are very important to the structure of the book. The triad form has a long history in Ireland going back at least to late mediaeval manuscripts. But the immediate source in my own imagination, and probably for the forgotten dream that gave me the sentence, must be WB Yeats’ The Wanderings of Oisin, but also The Circus Animals’ Desertion, with its meditation on youth and old age, Oisín led “through three enchanted islands’ and the ‘themes of the embittered heart”.
In a way (at least in the revisions), I thought of the book as a poem about landscape and the people that move through it. I wanted it to feel luxurious, full of sounds and sights and tastes and smells. I wanted my readers to taste the salt sea and the local Italian wine, to feel the cold wind of the Irish coast and the scorching heat of Naples.
It’s possible that my music listening habits influenced the decision about the gender of the narrator. Two Irish songs obsessed me at the time – An Mhaighdean Mhara (The Mermaid) and Dónal Óg (Young Donal). I collected versions of them and made full or partial translations several times. Both of them are at least partly a woman’s narrative, Dónal Óg in particular expressing a woman’s desolation and loss. I sense that guiding voice behind much of the book, though I don’t think I could identify a particular sentence or scene directly influenced by either of the songs.
It took me eight years to write the book – every sentence took shape slowly and was cut and re-edited until it was as intense and as shapely as I could make it – but perhaps the first problem I faced was that the story would be narrated by the two sisters, Jeannie and Grace. I experimented with multiple points of view and played various games with chronology and structure, but in the end I opted for a plain pattern of alternating chapters, each one narrated by one of the sisters. To distinguish them I resorted to simple techniques: for example, the first paragraph of each chapter mentions the other sister, so by default we can conclude who is speaking; or, for another example, Grace’s narrative is in the past tense, Jeannie’s is in the present. I hope it worked. I’ll find out from my readers to whom the book will soon belong.
But I’m certain of one thing – after long years of work and waiting, it’s time for Grace’s Day to dawn. Good luck to her.
The Irish Times (Sat., 11 Aug. 2018)
Italian edition of Grace's Day
Translated by Adele d'Arcangelo