Recently, in listing his top 10 favorite books, writer Tom Bissell named John Williams' "Stoner" as the best "quiet" novel he's ever read. It's a useful category, and one that Irish novelist Deirdre Madden's work could easily fit into. Whether we're talking about the "austere beauty" (to borrow a phrase from the nameless narrator of "Molly Fox's Birthday") of an early book like "The Birds of the Innocent Wood" or the warmer dynamics of the new novel, Madden's fiction has been producing quietly devastating effects for more than 20 years. This paperback original from Picador could give her work the higher profile it deserves in the United States.
The anonymous narrator is a female playwright staying at the Dublin home of her friend, critically acclaimed stage actor Molly Fox (don't call her an actress). Molly is away in New York on a solitary vacation. Appropriately enough, the novel obeys the dramatic unities and follows the playwright, who is in a "strange, remembering, slightly melancholy frame of mind," through a single day at Molly's place. As "being in the house [is] the next best thing to being with Molly herself," we learn a great deal about the great lady, as well as the third person who makes up the story's long-standing psychic triangle, an art historian named Andrew Forde.
That Mrs. Dalloway-like device of allowing the day's events and the house's resonances to tell a life's story never feels like a device because of Madden's subtlety and lightness of touch. In the same way, an important parallel between the main characters -- all three have a significant sibling -- barely breaks the narrative surface. Consciously or not, the novel resembles the gift that Molly's brother Fergus leaves for his sister. It's a beautifully crafted portable chess set, notable for "its small scale, its concealment and intricacy."
Small though its scale may be, the novel is not afraid to let in the outside world and its chaos, as "domestic" fictions sometimes are. Two raws acts of violence puncture these lives otherwise concerned with creativity. Indeed, how the artist or the individual responds to suffering and loss becomes one of the novel's main concerns. These responses range from Andrew, "the most patently and successfully self-constructed person" the narrator has "ever met," to her priest brother, Tom, who sees in his vocation "a way of translating your whole self."
The later stages of the novel are, in Madden's trademark understated way, fairly dramatic, as befits a story about a playwright and an actor. But there's never even a whiff of melodrama, as Madden resists the temptation to go for any big "reveal" about Molly or the others. Instead, what we get are subtle but significant changes in perception -- genuine gifts on what is, after all, a birthday.
Robert Cremins, author of "A Sort of Homecoming," teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston.