Every once and a while you read one of these books: after the first few pages you’re thinking, well, this has got promise... And the deeper you go, you’re smiling a little to yourself, observing: it’s got potential to be a masterpiece. Let’s see where the author takes this… And by the time you’ve finished—the last chapters like narcotics burning in the bloodstream—your brain is glowing with ideas and your head is shaking itself in disbelief, wondering if literature gets any better. I don’t suspect everyone will have the same reaction, but Keith Roberts’ 1987 Grainne is one such book for me. Problem is, the body left in such a state of fuzzy warmth, it makes defending this point difficult: where to begin?
It’s probably best to start with James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The semi-autobiographical story of an Irish boy who grows up to find his place in the world and art, he leaves home under troubled circumstances to discover life for himself and learn how his creative talents fit within it. From one perspective, Grainne is very similar. The story of one Alistair Bevan, he too makes the decision to break away from family as a youth to pursue what he thinks best for himself. Studying art at university and developing writing skills in his free time, Bevan’s initial steps into the professional world are timid and half-confident at best. His creations unsellable and publishers rejecting the stories, he lives a dissatisfied life among the lower rungs of society, barely making ends meet. Bevans a pseudonym Roberts used at the beginning of his career, the character arc, and the obvious facts Roberts was both writer and illustrator (Roberts provided the cover and chapter headers for Grainne) put the novel on par with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in more than one way.
But Grainne certainly departs from Joyce to mark its own road. Bevan’s luck changing one day, a woman appears that revolutionizes his life: the beauty Grainne. Amidst a torrid love affair, Bevan’s prospects begin looking up. He gets a semi-respectable job drawing, has some little success publishing, and begins to gain some confidence in society at large. Grainne glorious, almost goddess-like, she becomes a light in Bevan’s life. Diluting all of the worries, unfounded concerns, and psychological ticks he previously wrestled with, her iconoclasm—culturally, religiously, socially, even gender-wise—provide Bevan the freedom to see life from a new perspective. So bright is her personality, in fact, even her loss cannot extinguish Bevan’s high. But, there is still life to live.
Growing like a sprout through soil, flowering from Bevans’ story is a secondary storyline that regards the political situation between Britain and Ireland. Roberts never once dramatizing the associated history or events, the discussion comes about in passing. The slack picked up by Bevan’s trajectory, the manner in which the two convene upon the conclusion is the definition of subtlety. Roberts was never considered for the Nobel, but the beautiful manner in which he expresses and presents both the personal and political is just gorgeous, germane writing that make it worthy.
But Grainne gets better—the icing, cherries, sprinkles, and candles on the cake. “Celts and Brahamans sprang from the same stock.” is a sentence uttered at one point in the novel. Interesting for a story of Irish/British concerns, Roberts takes the idea to heart. Grainne Celtic in origin, an aura of Eastern philosophy nevertheless surrounds and imbues her life with peace, aloof self-confidence, and a sense of perennial wisdom. Buddhism, Zen, Hinduism, the Khmers—all are mentioned, yet none manifest in her life in any concrete, recognizable form. Seeping in between the lines and smoothing out the corners of the narrative, Bevan’s life becomes almost dreamlike for it, culminating in a beautiful denouement that lilts off the page like (fill in your own simile for beauty here).
To return to Joyce, if you can’t read the man, then don’t bother with Grainne. A distinctive cut above mainstream fiction, the novel is for active readers, the story’s minimalism, indirect speech, and cryptic allusion bliss for the true participant. Roberts paring down the narrative into an experience that hits from between the lines rather than directly, it’s a display of prose art the genre rarely sees set in an economy of style that wows. But I’d better draw this gush-fest to a close…
In the end, Grainne is a brilliantly effected, semi-autobiographical künstlerroman that transcends the author to encompass the social and political situation of Ireland and Great Britain in the 80s and beyond. Roberts on-point from word one, he delivers a tight-lipped narrative set free of its economy by the underlay of Eastern philosophy and Celtic myth. Perennial wisdom informing relevant personal and political concerns, literary fantasy is rarely able to synergize this level of ideological density, allusion, ethereality, and quality storytelling. Paul Kincaid hinting at it being Roberts’ magnum opus, indeed it’s a novel that not only sums the author’s oeuvre but career in several important ways. Regardless whether one agrees with my opinion, it is a must read for anyone considering themselves a reader of the intellectual side of genre. Just perhaps it will leave their head buzzing as warmly as mine?