Wednesday, January 8, 2014


I picked up Arimathea by Frank McGuinness largely because I was curious to see if such an accomplished playwright would make the transition to novel writing successfully - it blew me away!

I was naturally intrigued by the title and wondered about its relevance.   Arimathea was a small town perhaps in Judea, perhaps Samaria whence came Joseph who gave his grave for the burial of Jesus.   And graves seem to be the link as the novel certainly has a eschatological touch.   The plot, such as it is, arises as the result of a legacy -  and death, burial, and voices from beyond certainly figure strongly.  And religion does have an important role in that the major characters include the local priest, the Protestant minister and his niece.

The story is set in Donegal in a small village where the local priest, Fr O'Hagen, having inherited a sizeable sum from his mother, decides to commemorate her by bringing over from Italy, an artist, Gianni, to paint the Stations of the Cross for the local church.   Gianni is lodged in a house owned by a local family, the O'Donovans, with whom he takes his meals and whose young daughter, Euni, is charged with caring for him.   The narrative follows the life of the village, slow with apparently little happening outside the emotional turmoil of those most closely associated with Gianni.  But this is riveting.   McGuinness uses a similar technique to Donal Ryan in The Spinning Heart, in that he gives each of the main protagonists a chapter where we become privy to the thoughts and rampant desires hidden behind their often bland exteriors.  These chapters are followed by a rather beautiful one in the form of a poem on each of the Stations and a final chapter, Arimathea, which is a melange of voices in a wicked denouement.

McGuinness captures beautifully the voices of his protagonists, each very distinctive though oddly Gianni's is the weakest.   I say 'oddly' because this is territory McGuinness has visited before in Innocence about Caravaggio.   Young Euni is the first to break through Gianni's 'foreigness' and expose the real man and with Martha, the Minister's niece, he captures heart-breakingly her awkwardness, desire and uncertainties in the face of growing passion.   The portrayals of both Fr O'Hagen and his obsession with Mrs O'Donovan, and Minister Columba and his ironic outlook on life are extraordinary character studies.   There is a fascination for the reader in discovering the inner lives of the characters concealed from their neighbours and even the closest members of their families and this is the magic of McGuinness's writing.

I recommend that you find time for this.   It is published in Ireland by Brandon, an imprint of O'Brien Press, at €14.99.

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