Maurice Hannigan has never been one to carry on about his feelings, but on the second anniversary of his wife's death, the 84-year-old Irishman decides it's time to share.
The central character of "When All Is Said," Anne Griffin's moving first novel, Maurice grabs a stool in a pub near his home and embarks on his plan. Over the coming hours, he'll raise a glass — five, actually — to the people who've shaped his life. His expansive toasts, delivered in an internal monologue unnoticed by the bar's other patrons, form a self-portrait of a man tormented by loss.
Maurice's opening toasts commemorate his brother, who was felled by illness as a teen, and his daughter, who died in infancy. These and other tragedies fuel Griffin's most evocative scenes. In one, young Maurice, his sisters and their parents squeeze into his stricken brother's bedroom, discussing the recent end of World War II. "Tony joined in when he could," Maurice recalls. "But often I think he wanted to simply drift off to the sounds of our voices."
Griffin's early chapters feature arresting glimpses of working-class life in mid-20th-century Ireland. One day, Maurice's uncle stops by to show off a banana he bought in London. Nobody had seen such an exotic fruit, so they set it down "right in the middle of the table like some precious jewel," laughing away.
Maurice's youth proves far from idyllic, though. As a boy, he goes to work for a cruel family, a job that inflicts physical and emotional scars that will influence his decisions for decades.
His subsequent toasts are laced with self-recrimination. Busy with his farming machinery business, he frequently overlooked his wife, Sadie. During her first pregnancy, Sadie got frightening stomach pains. Maurice, out closing a deal, couldn't get her to a doctor. Their daughter was born the next day but died within minutes. A half-century later, can he finally forgive himself?
A Dublin native and a winner of the John McGahern Award, Griffin started writing fiction in 2013, when she was in her mid-40s. "When All Is Said" is an accomplished debut, a sensitive, layered depiction of grief and regret. Her sentences are often very sharp, and her pacing is excellent. Her final chapter is surprising and powerful.
Occasionally, when Griffin tries too hard to generate poignancy, her prose gets repetitive. In one scene, the spirit of Maurice's late brother "sits on my shoulder." Eight pages later, Maurice's guilt over his daughter's death "sat on my shoulder."
Maurice claims he's "not one for sentimentality," yet when he says things such as "I often forgot to see what lay inside and how precious it was," his soliloquies turn schmaltzy.
Mainly, though, this is an admirable, likable novel. Griffin's protagonist, flawed and sad, is a good guy who's decided to address some long-hidden wounds. Fortunately, he has all night.
Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York City.
When All Is Said
By: Anne Griffin.
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books, 326 pages, $26.99.