Set in Derry in the period between February 1945 and July 1971, it is a novel, in the form of interlinking short stories, which are narrated by an unnamed Catholic boy.
An opening quote taken from; 'She Moved Through The Fair', hints at the theme of the novel.
'The people were saying no two were e'er wed But one had a sorrow that never was said.'
The narrator takes us through a series of stories which come with a title and a date; for example, 'Crazy Joe - August 1951.' It is a time when every street had at least one ghost and the devil himself would turn up to play a game of cards. The first chapter opens with a ghost on the staircase of the narrator's own home. A ghost seen by the eyes of his mother but not his own. An unhappy ghost.
But ghosts aren't real, only the past comes back to haunt those who have a secret they want to keep hidden, even from their own families.
This is a tale about growing up through hard times. It tells of the innocent games played in decaying streets or the adventures of imagination which took the young on long trips to Grainan fort. It is set at a time when the memory of The War of Independence and the partition of Ireland was still fresh in the minds of the narrator's parents. Grainan fort stands on a hill overlooking a border which can't be seen, but it's clearly there. It has it's part to play in this tale.
As each short story follows on to the next one, there is humour throughout, but slowly a secret begins to unravel, just a small piece at a time. This mystery is what keeps us wanting to read on. As we do we begin to see the ghosts ourselves, for it becomes a secret as dark as the back lanes at night where the ghosts of our own childhood often lurked.
The narrator's mother is haunted by this secret, she knows most of the story, but not all of it. His father only knows part of it. This part he eventually tells his sons while on a trip to Culmore, as they waited out a rain storm in a country church. His mother had long before revealed what she had been told to her own father, who had been an IRA leader in the city, but never to her husband. She let him live with what he believed, therefore her secret was a cruel secret.
It only ever came to light because of a crazy man and what he had witnessed in the early hours of a morning, in July 1926, while he also sheltered from the rain.
Crazy Joe was in and out of Gransha asylum, where his mental illness was treated with acts of brutality, but he knew what he had seen.
This was a time when the laws of the land were brutally enforced by the RUC man and the laws of God were often beaten into the mind of a child by the priest.
The narrator's grandfather was an atheist, besides being a Republican, and he feared neither man nor god. He resisted when they brought the priest to save him on his deathbed.
"Don't let them get me at the last moment, son. Don't let them."
The grandfather took his atheist beliefs to the grave but it was a terrible injustice which haunted him until he took his final breath.
His daughter, the narrator's mother, only learned of part he had played in this injustice as he lay dying. The whole dark secret was complete and it would destroy her.
The novel is beautifully written, it is poetic and funny in equal parts.
"...lino from which the original pattern had been polished away to the point where it had the look of faint memory."
I am glad that I only read the reviews on it after I had finished reading it because, for the most part, they give the plot line away. Not knowing what the hidden secrets were made the book all the more enjoyable.
Seamus Deane, 1997. Reading In The Dark. Publisher: Vintage. ISBN-13:978-0099744412