I’ve had this book hanging around for a couple of years; I’d read good reviews and picked it up when I saw it in a charity shop, but didn’t feel immediately compelled to read it. I wish I had done so straight away; this is perfect in every way, and it was pure pleasure to read from beginning to end. Deirdre Madden has a wonderful style; lucid yet lyrical, she is economical with her choice of words and crafts the most beautiful sentences that effortlessly weave a tangible world. This is a quiet, thoughtful novel; one that is to be relished and ruminated on, and that stays with you long after you close the pages. It cast quite a spell on me, and I was sad indeed to leave its characters behind.
The novel opens on midsummer’s day in Dublin, where the unnamed narrator, a famous and highly successful playwright, is housesitting for her best friend, Molly Fox, who happens to be an equally famous and highly successful actress. They have been friends for years, ever since working on a play together in their early twenties, and on this day, Molly’s never celebrated birthday, the narrator finds herself taking a meandering journey reminiscing about their lives together. There are musings on the creative process; on their mutual friend Andrew, whose brother was killed in the Troubles and transformed himself into an English-accented TV History presenter soon after; on Molly’s estranged mother and beloved, psychologically fragile brother Fergus; on how little we know about those closest to us, and on how we choose to construct our lives and sense of selves by who and what we surround ourselves with. Despite being essentially all about Molly and her impact on those she has chosen to gather around her, the novel is cleverly constructed as to rarely feature her, and she doesn’t appears in the present of the narration, becoming a perfect metaphor for the central message of the hidden nature of our true selves.
There is much to say about this book, but there is also much subtly and sensitively revealed throughout that would ruin the reading experience if I gave a more comprehensive analysis of the plot and characters. It is difficult to put my finger on what so captured me while I was reading, or why I found it so refreshing and so profound. There are many fascinating strands; Madden’s insights into the reality of the process of acting and its emotional toll were particularly thought provoking, as were her meditations on the hidden complexities beneath the surface of our relationships with one another. When I find a book difficult to write about, as I have this, then I know it is something truly special; to reduce Molly Fox’s Birthday to a few lines of plot summary and comments on its emotional impact would be missing the point of it entirely. It gave me an utterly different reading experience and introduced me to a voice I cannot believe is not more lauded in the literary establishment. This is true artistry, true magic; Deirdre Madden is a master storyteller, and is proof that there is still brilliance at work today.