THE WINNER OF SORROW
Published October 11, 2005
New Island Books
The Winner of Sorrow can be ordered from New Island Books.
The Irish Times
Saturday, October 29, 2005
MAD LIKE US NORMAL FOLKS
“It was the first day of a new century and in East Dereham the Christians were going to church,” begins Brian Lynch’s new novel, in an opening paragraph so elegant it might have come straight out of Jane Austen.
The Winner of Sorrow is a fictional retelling of the life of the poet William Cowper; a forgotten poet, it says on the jacket, though many of us can still dredge such lines as “I am monarch of all I survey” and “God moves in mysterious ways/ His wonders to perform” from the depths of dusty primary-school memory.
Born into a wealthy family, Cowper (pronounced “cooper”) was shaping up to a privileged existence as an upper-crust lawyer in London when he had what we would, nowadays, call a breakdown. He sought refuge in the countryside, which made him feel better, and in fundamentalist religion, which made him feel terrible. It is one of the many ironies of Cowper’s story that a man with a genius for poetic communication should find himself so out of tune with his fellow human beings. Mad as he was, however, he inspired unflagging devotion from friends of both sexes.
Lynch’s portrayal of Cowper’s mental condition is strikingly at odds with the approach taken by most contemporary fiction, where insanity has become almost synonymous with sociopathy. We are accustomed to reading about cold, calculating killers who lurk in the darkness at the edge of society and strike out, now and again, at us normal folks. Cowper is a very different literary proposition: in his contradictions and inadequacies and endearing humanity, he is us normal folks. “He understood,” we are told in that exquisite opening paragraph, “that he was completely insane, or rather almost completely, but not quite. In the same nearly perfect way, he was sure that he had always been too contemptible to be loved by any living creature, but that loving him had destroyed the lives of four women, three wild hares and a linnet.” That “not quite” is important. So is the wry tone of the narrative, which never falters, though the action moves forward by lurches and jolts, skipping back and forth in time and peering out from some outrageous angles as it follows the swoops and hiccups of the hero’s convoluted reasoning. And then there is the sheer joy of the cast of secondary characters; a collection of real-life personages so shambolic, earnest and downright odd that no novelist would dare to make them up. Lynch doesn’t fail to capitalise on the comic potential of his menage of misfits, and merriment regularly bubbles up through the cracks. When, late in the novel, the royal physician arrives to examine Cowper with a view to whipping him off to an asylum, there is a scene which wouldn’t be out of place in a Rossini opera, with rival lady-loves sniping at each other over afternoon tea while the inevitable male companion tries to keep the peace and Cowper flutters ineffectually from one side to the other.
Rossini opera via 21st-century sitcom: or Jane Austen seen through the window of Fawlty Towers, perhaps. Does it all sound mannered and cruel? If it does, the fault lies with this reviewer.
The Winner of Sorrow is a brilliantly imagined, impressively executed piece of writing. Its trump card, though, is not style, but substance. Compassion, not cleverness, makes it tick; love, it suggests, is as ludicrous as everything else, but it’s all we have. A wonderful book.
Arminta Wallace is an Irish Times journalist
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