Title: The Night Stages
Author: Jane Urquhart
What it is: A novel that features the Rás
Strengths: The writing is pretty in places
Weaknesses: Urquhart is perhaps playing with two many ideas – a painting, a pilot, a bike race, all wrapped up in a love story meant to evince ideas of dislocation and separation – to get much of worth out of any of them
“She could imagine she was happy here. But that is all it would be. Imagination.
’You English are only here for the view,’ he said once. ‘There’s no reality in it.’”
“She had been surprised when he had begun to speak while he was preparing to leave, having so often been silent after conflict, or love. With his back to her and one arm in a shirt, he said, ‘You insist you want to know something more about me. So here it is: my brother and I were in a bike race together.’ He turned toward her and sat down on the bed where she still lay. ‘We were in a race together, just before I was to be married.’ He put his other arm into a sleeve but had not buttoned the shirt. ‘Neither of us knew the other would be there. But Susan,’ he said, ‘Susan knew. She knew and she told neither of us. Had I known ... had I known the damage.’”
’She’ is Tam, a south-of-England gel rebelling against her upbringing: “Her parents were kind enough people really, at least until her father entered the commercial world. Before the war they had been rich in a courteous manner, presiding over the village and the tenants in a vague, good-natured, almost listless way, following a system of life they believed had always been and would therefore continue to be in effect. The idea that there might be some other system that would be more just had simply never occurred to them.”
At seventeen she marries Reggie, “a glamorous flying officer” who “seemed to provide the perfect avenue for escape. She made flying lessons a condition of her engagement, having never until then managed to get up in one of the planes, and these he had arranged for her at a nearby private field, never once, she realized later, believing that she had been serious. He found her interest in flying amusing rather than alarming, assuming it was a feminine whim, and that one experience behind the controls would frighten the wits out of her and that would be that.”
No amount of experiences behind the controls can frighten the wits out of Tam and she becomes a pilot in the Air Transport Auxiliary, flying planes between airfields and to and from factories during the war.
After the war, Tam walks out on her husband “shortly after a country house garden party during which her tolerance for Reggie’s jocular behaviour completely vanished.” She moves back in with her parents, now living in London, who swiftly hire one of Tam’s childhood friends, Teddy, to be their gardener. Teddy has always been sweet on Tam – she has never been more than fond of him – and hearing she’s given Reggie the old heave-ho he has found a way to insinuate himself again into her life.
Teddy and Tam elope to Kerry - “‘I’ve been left my grandmother’s cottage in Kerry,’ he told her. ‘There is nothing stopping us from going there.’” Having served his narrative purpose and relocated Tam to the locus of the novel, Teddy is callously tossed on the scrag heap of creative writing, “drowned a year later while fishing behind the house. It had been raining and raining for weeks and weeks and the little solemn river he waded into must have developed a strong-enough current that it caught him off-guard.”
Tam – who Reggie still thinks will eventually return to him – doesn’t have to mourn Teddy for long before Niall turns up on her doorstep one day, a punctured bicycle outside her – Teddy’s grandmother’s – cottage bringing the two together. Long story short, they fall into a storm-tossed relationship:
“Everyone she had ever been had been available to him; the small girl under the stairs, the young woman in the cockpit with Orion above the propeller, the woman with one sugar bowl rescued from rubble in her hands, the unhappy wife, the reasonable and in truth vaguely happy partner of the innocent Teddy. And then there was the woman she became when Niall himself had begun to come to her door, a woman no longer fully young, no longer a prey to expectations, and then suddenly filled with uneasy, ceaseless longing. Nothing in her wanted to withdraw as she had always wanted to withdraw. Some other self was born, one she did not fully approve of but was powerless to keep at bay. She wanted him. She wanted much more of him. He took her breath away.”
But Tam could not have much more of Niall, for he – as she learned the first time they met – is married to Susan. Tam also comes to realise that Niall holds in reserve from her the part of himself reserved for a complicated relationship with his brother, Kieran.
Oh, Kieran. Born in a storm, his birth had broken his mother’s pelvis. The doctor prescribed morphine to manage the pain. Soon she was hooked on it. And on the chemist who provided it to her. Then she too is cast on the scrag heap of creative writing, killed off in an obliquely referenced suicide. Creating out of Kieran a Caliban-like child, full of rage. His father, the local meteorologist, can’t control Kieran’s stormy temperament. The housekeeper, Gerry-Annie - “a sort of Irish Nelly Dean” – can and so she sort of adopts the boy, moving him out of the family home and into her own. Niall, whose mother’s death has already emotionally estranged him from his younger brother, is now physically separated from him.
It would have soon become a physical separation anyway, for Niall was bound for Dublin and university, where he trains to succeed his father as the local meteorologist. During which time he falls in love with Susan, “the jeweller’s daughter down in the town.” Kieran for some reason becomes infatuated with Susan but is too preoccupied to do much except think about her. Until the novel’s denouement. The thing he’s pre-occupied with is being trained in the ways of bicycle racing by a myth- and mysticism-spouting local, Kirby, who has identified Kieran as a future winner of the newly created Rás Tailteann:
“‘Davey allowed as you’re the only one for it, though you’ve only two years to train. It is a hard thing, the Rás, but you are the only one for it. By the time you’re fitted up and strong enough for it, the Rás will be in its third year. The first one was a glorious free-for-all with the boys from Tipperary quarrelling with the boys from Mayo, and everyone quarrelling with the Ulster constabulary in the North. But the third race will be more-settled like, more dignified. And it is important that you win.’”
All of the story of The Night Stages is told in temporally-confused flashbacks, while Tam is grounded in Newfoundland, stuck in Gander airport as the Shannon to New York flight she’s fleeing her doomed affair with Niall on is stuck under a three-day blanket of fog. Gander airport is famous for a mural by the artist Kenneth Lochhead, and as Tam examines parts of it the past is revealed to us. The past she knows, her own past as a child growing up in Cornwall. The past she has learned from Niall, his past growing up in Kerry. And a past that was unknown even to Niall, Kieran’s past as the Yoda-like Kirby trains him for the Rás by sending him on retreat to Skellig Michael. Also revealed by our ever so distant all-knowing narrator is the story of the mural in Gander’s airport, which ultimately serves as a way for the author to express her own ideas about the ways in which abstractionism and reality can be combined – abstracted characters in realistically rendered landscapes – while also self-indulgently squeezing in a chapter about a critic with different ideas.
Reality surrounds The Night Stages, invades the abstract narrative: Lochhead was a friend of Urquhart’s husband and his mural in Gander is real; Tam is loosely inspired by a relative of the author, Vi Milstead Warren, who was a pilot in the Air Auxiliary; Kirby is loosely inspired by a Kerry poet of the same name who Urquhart, a Canadian with distant Irish roots, came to know during the time she had a cottage near Mastergeehy; the Rás is real and Kieran is inspired by Mike Murphy (who won the race in 1958). Even peripheral characters, the author takes the time to tell us, are drawn from reality.
But while reality surrounds so much of The Night Stages – and while the author feels the need to inform us of its roots in reality – Urquhart has twisted it all out of shape, preferring a romanticised, fetishized Ireland-of-the-imagination, a world in which a poet who has never ridden a bicycle can take two years to mould a winner of the Rás on a bike Kieran found abandoned when he was not yet thirteen:
“This one was gleaming with fresh, unchipped purple paint and was in comparatively good repair. Not one of the spokes was missing from the wheels, there was no rust anywhere on it, and, most wonderfully, it had a bell.”
As well as a bell it was a bicycle with a back fender. It’s odd how a simple word can show you how fake what you are seeing is. A fender. It reminds you that Urquhart is not Irish, it reminds you that the characters she is portraying are not really Irish. They gather on the sidewalk. They get change from a punt note. They eat jelly donuts. This is Ireland as imagined by the non-Irish, an Ireland warped by their own experiences and a little research.
But, to be honest, such missteps are but gentle reminders that you need to hoist your disbelief a lot higher, especially when you compare them to the notion of Kieran tearing around the Iveragh peninsula for what must be the thick end of a decade on a bike with one gear and a coaster brake, only upgrading his set-up a few months before the big bike race: “As it turned out, you could put new gears, three speeds of them, on an old bike. The man in the Killarney cycle shop was firm on this, you could, but you would have to have the money to pay for the fitting of them.”
Like David Coventry with The Invisible Mile, Urquhart’s interest in cycling stems from a little bit of history which is quickly tossed in the rubbish bin in favour of a wholly different telling of the story. Here, the history comes from Tom Daly’s 2003 book, The Rás – The Story of Ireland’s Unique Bike Race, where Urquhart first met the race born in 1953 as a two-day affair (Dublin-Wexford-Dublin) and which, when it crossed into Northern Ireland in 1956, nearly caused a riot. As with Coventry – as with so many who think they can write a novel featuring bike races – Urquhart feels compelled to dial things up to eleven, especially so in the novel’s penultimate chapter, thirty pages of a fantasy Rás in which brother is pitted against brother for a geansaí buí and the love – possession – of a woman, thirty pages of a fantasy Rás in which fantastical breakaways are balanced against Biblical setbacks and a collection of the Rás’s greatest hits are all crammed into one race.
Urquhart – a Booker long-listed author for The Stone Carvers in 2001 – carries the cross of comparison with Margaret Atwood (with whom she shares an editor, Ellen Seligman). Rather than being a trite little angst-soaked love story with thinly drawn characters, The Night Stages is meant to be treated seriously, the metaphors it is drenched in examined for meaning. The pilot grounded. The weatherman who can’t control his stormy relationships. The painting that is also the novel.
Being a ‘serious’ novelist, Urquhart doesn’t ‘do’ sport (“I’ve lived in Canada all of my life and I still haven’t been to a hockey game,” she told the Irish Times when the book was released in 2015) and this is a fact that is self-evident from her depiction of the Rás. But, she believes, she at least now understands the attraction of sport for others: “In my life I would never have believed that I would have written about sport in any way. And it was positively life-enhancing. I think I understand more now about what it is that draws people – and of course, living in Kerry, people are pretty obsessed by football – and the mythological aspect of it. That was one of the things the book did for me.”
The problem here, though, is that – as with Coventry in The Invisible Mile – Urquhart’s interest in the mythological aspect is only in how she can bend it to a literary purpose. And so nothing in The Night Stages – not even the pieces clearly drawn from reality – is allowed to feel real, the author having created characters and situations that are enslaved by their literary purpose. Leaving a novel that might in places be pretty to look at, but doesn’t do much beyond that.