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Time Present and Time Past
2014, 161 pages
Time Present and Time Past is a quiet, reflective book about a middle aged man, Fintan, whose prevailing quality is a “combination of high intelligence and an innocence so incorrigible that it can sometimes look like stupidity.” He is married to a very kind woman who even his tough old mother loves, and he has a warm relationship with his nearly grown sons and young daughter, as well as his sister, Martina, and beloved aunt, Beth. Sounds boring, but Madden explores her characters’ inner lives in such a way that by the time you’ve turned to the last page you feel as if you’ve discovered what makes us human. From remembrances of childhood to reflections on old age, Madden explores what living feels like, and she does it without much of a plot or even much drama (there is a very important and well-done subplot about a trauma that changed the course of Martina’s life), instead sticking with simple, familiar domestic scenes that are part of her readers’ shared experience — family meals, commuting to work, sitting in a cafe, speaking with a coworker, taking a child and her friend on an outing.
It’s Madden’s exquisite writing that makes this work. Riding with Martina to visit a cousin, Fintan begins to remember where he is: “. . . already something is beginning to wake in Fintan’s memory. He does not recognise any given house, field, or hill but the generality of them speak to him. They are all familiar in a visceral way, and he knows deep down that he has been here, or hereabouts, before now.” I’ve heard Paul Harding describe good prose as something which you always knew, and never heard put into words quite the same way before. That’s what’s beautiful about Time Present and Time Past.