The Weight of Love
When Robin Wolfe, an Irishman teaching in a comprehensive school in Clerkenwell in London in 1995, meets Special Needs Assistant Ruth Lennon, he becomes immediately infatuated with her. Ruth however is more tentative towards him. But, when Robin introduces her to his erratic and artistic boyhood friend Joseph Kazargazof, Ruth embarks on a passionate liaison with Joseph.
The novel then flits to Dublin 2017 where we witness Ruth and Robin married with a son Sid on the point of going to Berlin to try to be a DJ. The remainder of the narrative is involved in filling in the gaps as the ‘courteous, twitchy marriage’ is haunted by the ghost of Joseph. While competently done, one irritating consequence of this method of flashback writing is the almost constant use of the pluperfect tense. However, it is very readable and page-turning despite a little sag in the middle where perhaps there is too much emphasis on food.
There are on-the-button descriptions such as the meteorological accuracy of some Irish summers’ where ‘the sun waits until you’ve given up on it entirely before it flashes it brilliance and then disappears altogether’. And the atmosphere of London in the nineties is wonderfully captured. Robin liked the city because there he could think freely ‘on the grey edges of its disregard.’ And when Ruth shared with three Irish nurses in Streatham, she listened to the harrowing stories they brought back every night from the hospital. And one of nurses, the reliable Helen ‘like durable grouting’ harbours a secret love for Robin. But it is ‘a pebble-sized love that you could turn over in your pocket without anyone at all being aware of its weight in your hand’.
Fannin is a fine writer with an original turn of phrase. She renders brilliantly an epiphanic moment for Robin when as a child he encounters Joseph’s mother topless and entertaining a man in the marram grass on a West Cork beach. For up to this he had thought of mothers merely as people who ‘had faces, mouths that opened and closed in butchers’ shops and eyes that squinted on sidelines’.
In London Ruth felt separated ‘from the husk of herself’. While at home Ruth’s mother measured out her days visiting her dying husband in hospital, and with her ritualistic washing of his pyjamas was ‘treating death with an excessive politeness, as if it was an exhaustingly powerful guest’.
The novel is interspersed with great touches of humour. Ruth on one occasion says to Robin ‘I’d better go before you eat me, Mr Wolfe’. And there is comical play on words in the mishearing of ‘fine art framer’ for ‘fine art farmer’. And Fannin shows her eye for exact detail when Robin hands an emotional Ruth a tissue with the warning that there might be chutney on it.
You can make an identity and name it, Ruth reflects thinking of Robin towards the end, but you cannot forget the past. And still thinking of Joseph she comes to the conclusion with perhaps the best line which encapsulates the kernel of the book: ‘You cannot monogamize memory’. For memory after all is ‘just layers and layers of colour and tricks of light’.
Fannin lassoes perfectly the nuances of feelings that make us. When Ruth was sensing the affair with Joseph was finally expending itself, she ‘looked beyond him’ as he excitedly beheld her. She felt a weariness ‘with his shoes arranged side by side at the foot of the bed, with the dampish underground smell, with the drawings tacked to the wall’.
Hilary Fannin has written award-winning plays and a well-received memoir Hopscotch. This is her first novel. It is an impressive debut.
Published in the Irish Examiner, 12/09/2020.