Review | Rainsongs, by Sue Hubbard

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Sue Hubbard’s Rainsongs has a unique and beautiful emotive quality that shines through its delicately constructed prose in a love-letter to Ireland, memory and parenthood, taking advantage of its mature narrator to speak with resonance and depth. In a contemporary world of instant connections, Rainsongs returns to an age just prior to the boom of social media – 2007 – in an exploration of what it means to be truly alone.

Rainsongs is a book filled with characters who are alone, by circumstance and by choice. Martha Cassidy has lost her husband and only son; twice-divorced Eugene Riordan and farm devotee Paddy O’Connell eschew relationships, finding they are happier living on their own. Accounts of community, large families, childhood friendships, are all recalled, dreamlike, from a distant past. Permanent loneliness haunts the narrative as a threat, but it is from solitude that the most beautifully haunting and thoughtful reflections in the book arise. Whenever Hubbard’s varyingly anthropophobic characters do enter a social setting, such as Eugene’s New Year’s Eve party, Brendan’s funeral, or the various local pubs, bars and restaurants, other people in the crowd are sketched accurately but unflatteringly, reduced to their worst.

However, as the supplies in Martha’s cupboard dwindle at the beginning of each chapter, the unsustainability of hermitage becomes clear. Paddy ends up in hospital by attempting to pull a heifer out of a ditch alone, an impossible task. Martha, despite her disdain for the pity she detects in all her interactions, is forced to ‘stay connected’ by the PhD student who rents her top room, and even out in the country cottage in the middle of nowhere finds herself mobbed by undesired visitors, local families, Eugene. It is impossible to stay alone forever, as the monks who travelled out to the Skelligs found all those centuries ago.

Estranged from and disliking most other people, it is through writing that Hubbard’s narrator first finds community. The intertextuality of Rainsongs is established from its very beginning with opening quotes taken from Woolf, Shakespeare and Irish proverbs, which inspire and in some cases structure and speak through the novel. Martha Cassidy cannot relate to anybody around her but finds a companion in Mrs Ramsay, and notes that despite her childlessness, Virginia Woolf ‘understood’ her loss. Similarly, she finds that Shakespeare ‘understands’ the utopian promise of a desert island in his Tempest. Although this promise of utopia, as of the trip to the Skelligs, is ultimately empty, Martha discovers the possibility of human empathy and companionship through text.

Brendan, perhaps the only extrovert described in the novel and hauntingly absent, is only present through the words of his remaining diaries and letters, which open up a previously closed side of himself to his wife. This allows her to connect with him in a way she never could when he was alive, revealing his secrets, and highlighting her loneliness even when she was with him. Her burgeoning relationship with the young Colm Nolan hinges around the reading of his poetry, again providing an elsewhere non-existent insight into his true feeling. Still grieving, complicatedly, for Bruno, Martha unconsciously seeks out a boy protégé in Colm, much as Brendan did – without her knowledge – in his lifetime. In continuing his mission of getting his poetry published, she is able to complete their foreshortened joint parenthood, relating to Colm as the adult that Bruno never became. Hubbard handles the development of their relationship so sensitively that the questionable circumstances of their intimacy – the age difference, Martha’s recent widowhood and maternal void – do not cast a shadow over their relationship, rather illuminating a pure, emotional connection. It is poetry that acts as the catalyst for this, as the publication of Colm’s work, dedicated to Bruno, effects a change in Martha, allowing her to finally achieve closure. Eventually, she is able to reconsider her future, deciding to build a life teaching English to young refugees, refilling her role as teacher; the element of selfhood that she has been completely without for the first part of the novel, existing only in relation to the deceased men of her life. When she finally returns to the Skelligs, she is not alone but accompanied by her healed memories of Bruno and her newfound human connections, again effected through her language.

The subsequent self-awareness of Hubbard’s own writing as a mode of release lends it an especially powerful emotive quality. Her noted poetic style brings a unique rhythm to her prose, well suited to the romantic descriptions of the Irish countryside, but she is also a gifted storyteller. The combination of endearing details such as Paddy having used the same comb since childhood, together with eye-watering descriptions of the new-money luxury spa that Eugene plans to build and a cutting turn of phrase that sketches a couple as ‘the director of a string of local supermarkets and his heavily Botoxed wife’ bring two very different realities together at once, painting a convincing portrait of pre-recession Ireland. Politics barely surfaces, just existing in the background as Republican flags wave in pubs and children wear orange, white and green T-shirts to watch a football game; Hubbard is more interested in the everyday lives of her characters, and drinking champagne instead of Guinness becomes a motif that is aware of its own ironies. Empathy for refugees past and present targets questions of compassion and connection more than it does government quotas, and the EU is a seemingly independent fluctuating circumstance in the lives of the locals.

Hubbard’s book is about city and country, home and identity, love and loss, but it is in its traversal of the shaky balance between solitude and loneliness that it finds its unique voice, and champions the role of literature in an increasingly disconnected modern world.

Rainsongs is available online and in bookstores now.

LEAH SHAYA