Rainsongs by Sue Hubbard

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Reviewed by Jean Morris

Sue Hubbard Rainsongs

Rainsongs will take you to remote vistas in the west of Ireland. It’s a lovely, vividly transporting novel.

“Apart from the wind and waves, it’s completely quiet. The sea dark as tar and the white crests rolling into the far distance like streaks of light on a negative. This is the end of the world with nothing between her and America except the cold sea. She thinks of those medieval maps in the Vatican… The known world was so much smaller then and at each parchment corner… a monster warning of unimaginable dangers.”

I first encountered Sue Hubbard’s work through her poem, Eurydice, etched along a wall of the busy, rather bleak underpass connecting Waterloo Station with the Imax Cinema. Walking past it every day on my way to work in central London, I used to read compulsively, muttering the words, walking to their rhythm, captivated by their imagery, identifying all too readily and wondering if I’d ever climb out of that constraining daily routine:

“I dream of a green garden
where the sun feathers my face
like your once eager kiss.

Soon, soon I will climb
from this blackened earth
into the diffident light.”

then out of the subway and up onto Waterloo Bridge. So I looked into the poet, read more of her poetry, her writing on art and her fiction, especially enjoying Girl in White, about the pioneering nineteenth-century German painter Paula Modersohn-Becker.

The new novel from this multi-faceted writer is set in coastal County Kerry in 2007, just before the financial crash that would end the dizzying rise of the Celtic Tiger. Martha Cassidy, a London school teacher in her fifties still reeling from the recent and sudden death of her Irish husband, Brendan, has travelled on impulse, in the middle of winter, to the remote cottage he’s been visiting without her ever since their last family holiday there with their young son, Bruno, twenty years ago. Day by day, over the brief two weeks of her stay, she absorbs the land- and seascape, contemplates her life, and encounters local people – Colm, a young musician-poet cutting turfs for fuel in the traditional way alongside Mary, his mother; Paddy, a quiet, contented bachelor farmer and his sister, Nora, a retired head teacher; Eugene, a wealthy, restlessly unhappy property developer.

Martha’s story is a close-up, present-tense narration, never losing its tight focus, but intricately interwoven with her memories and reflections, and with strong impressions of her Irish neighbours and of the wind- and rainswept fields, dramatic coastline and just-visible rocky islands, the Skelligs, where medieval monks lived in almost unimaginable isolation and hardship. The blurred, rainy landscape and the whole atmosphere of the novel believably and touchingly evoke the blurred unreality of shock and grief.

Centred on Martha’s viewpoint and responses, still the story constantly circles and brings forward in turn the other characters, both past and present. As she walks in the countryside and on the beach or hunkers in the cottage against wild weather, memories of her husband, a gallerist and art historian, and their son repeatedly take over.

“To relive the past we start with a few known facts. Then add texture and colour, so that like a child’s dot-to-dot drawing we arrive, if we’re lucky, at an approximate outline. Though often it’s not quite what we expect.”

And in and out of view come the locals, each representing some aspect of the community, its different social classes and generations, in a time of shockingly rapid change, but none of them one-dimensional. Easy to feel fondness for the warmth and creativity Martha finds in Colm, for Paddy’s gentle, admirable resilience. More surprising and equally moving are her alternating dismay and amusement at Eugene’s lack of feeling or imagination – a sad man, at heart, and harmful to himself as well as others. And the first of quite a few tears I blinked back were for Sophie, her husband’s one-time lover, whose letters Martha finds among his papers in the cottage.

“She was surprised when Sophie turned up at the crematorium. She should have been angry. But she wasn’t. It must have taken a degree of courage. They didn’t speak, but Martha noticed her standing on the edge of the proceedings in a black wool coat, her thick curls loosely held at the nape of her neck with a big copper slide. She looked genuinely upset but was discreet, hanging back until everyone left for the hotel, and then quietly slipping away.”

The portrait of Martha is the whole heart of this; she’s self-possessed and self-protective, brittle, intelligent, empathetic. The rugged coastal landscape is the portrait’s striking background. And striking too is the snapshot-story, observed over just a few days, of a rural lifestyle being brought to an accelerated end by the economic boom. Eugene wants to build on the land Paddy’s family has farmed for generations. Paddy’s quiet life may just survive, but what of the future and the more complicated aspirations of Colm’s generation? And what can it all mean for Martha, back in this place she has so long avoided for its painful memories? Facing up to an old grief as well as the new one, she finds some comfort and resolution in an unexpected attraction, in enduring natural beauty and a long cultural heritage:

“For the first time in months the knot inside her starts to unravel. In its place is a new quietness. As though she’s being returned to herself.”

Rainsongs is full of history and poetry, art and psychology, but their touch is light; intensely felt and focused, but kaleidoscopic, not confined – an unusual and absorbing read.

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Jean Morris is a translator, editor and writer, recently lured away from fiction by poetry, but novels like this one lure her back.

Sue Hubbard, Rainsongs (Duckworth Overlook, 2018); 978-0-7156-5285-5, 242 pp., paperback original.

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