Hugo Hamilton’s new novel Every Single Minute was launched in a packed County Hall (Dun Laoghaire) last Thursday. Reviews have been respectful, if slightly uncertain. How fictional can a novel be when it makes no effort to hide the fact that it is based on Nuala O’Faolain’s last journey, a trip to Berlin? Hugo Hamilton (HH) was one of several people who accompanied her on that journey; he wrote about it in the Irish Times soon after her death and now he’s written a novel.
I’ve heard people speak out of the sides of their mouths about all this, but the general consensus was a) that judgement would be reserved until the novel has been read – always a good policy – and b) that nothing would be said about these discomforts on the night of the launch.
How wrong they were. Anne Enright (AE) stepped up to the microphone and anticipated every criticism, query and quibble. She said not to worry, they would be talking about Nuala during the public interview, but with respect. She said Nuala had a relationship with the Irish audience that was passionate and frank. She said, if there was a big red button in the middle of that room with a sign on it saying Do Not Press, Nuala would be the one to march right up to it and push it. Nuala was drawn to the taboo, to naming and shaming; she felt she was entitled to the truth, that we’re all entitled to the truth.
No one could argue with that. Elephant despatched from the room, we settled down to listen while AE talked about HH’s novel in glowing terms, comparing its/his imaginative territory to that of WG Sebald, the strange shifting borderland between fact and fiction.
During the public conversation between the two writers we learned interesting things, such as how indebted HH feels to Nuala O’Faolain’s shattering memoir, Are You Somebody? (1996) It was an important book for him, he said, because it lifted the roof off the family. There was (still is, said AE) a closed door thing in Ireland, about family. He hadn’t known you could write like that – with that degree of openness – outside of America. (HH’s first volume of memoir The Speckled People (2003) has been a global phenomenon.)
That trip to Berlin when Nuala was dying was a life-changing experience for him, he said. He spoke about the intensity of the journey and the impact it had on him as a witness. He said it made him feel alive for the first time in his life. Then he said that might be overstating it, but it made him feel the importance of time: mortality is the ultimate plot.
It’s hard to argue with that, either. In HH’s novel, the character based on Nuala says to the character based on HH that we are only stories, walking stories. ‘We are at the mercy of our stories and our children and our families. Because that’s all there is, the stories we tell about ourselves, the stories that are told about us, the stories we tell about each other.’
It’s intriguing to wonder what she would make of this particular story being told about her. There might have been another book in it.