The Truth about Love is Irish-born writer Jospehine Hart's sixth novel, continuing her trademark themes of family secrets, obsessive passion, loss, death and legacy. This time Hart extends these themes to include the storied and difficult history of Ireland and, to a lesser degree, Germany, and how a country's violent past can affect its citizens.
The book begins with the micro - a boy dying in the backyard of his Irish countryside home, and moves to the macro - the history of Ireland's troubles outside and inside the country, and especially the affect and legacy of the Catholic/Protestant violence.
The opening chapter is a powerful stream-of-consciousness sequence from the mind of a teen boy as he dies after being injured while playing with explosives. He lies on the ground asking his sister to summon the priest and to shield his broken body from his mother, who has already recently lost a young daughter.
"Must try to make my sister hear the sound of me. 'Turn me over quickly. Don't let Mama see me. Mama must not see.' And she hears me! I can see she hears me, above Mama's scream. Is it a scream? It's a sound. Sounds like a scream. Is it because my arm is gone? Can Mama see my arm gone? That's why sound is screaming. Mama must not see other parts gone as well. Gone where? Where is my arm gone? That sound again. Oh please don't Mama. That scream is hurting me. And now Olivia is pull-dragging Mama away. It's hard for Olivia because Mama is strong but Olivia holds on and pulls-drags Mama to the gate. Goodbye Mama. Can you hear me calling out? Goodbye kind Mama. Is it forever goodbye?"
The boy's monologue as he's being rushed to hospital with the priest and doctor administering to him sets up the characters and themes for the rest of the story. From there the micro story is told from the points of view of members of the O'Hara family - the boy's mother, Sissy, and his sister Olivia - and also from the vantage point of a German exile and writer named Thomas Middlehoff. The boy's father, also called Tom, visits Middlehoff to see about purchasing his garden gate, which was much admired by his son. During the visit Tom tells Middlehoff that he wishes to leave Ireland, or at least this area of Ireland, to gain some distance from the loss of their two children.
However, his wife refuses to leave and wants the gate installed to mark the place where the boy died. Middlehoff doesn't tell the grieving father the origin of the coveted gate, and that he has also lost two children. Since he has left his country to escape his life's absences, as well as his nation's transgressions, he can offer no solace to the man and his wife. Either way, there seems no real turning away from the pain.
Sissy is sent to the hospital to ensure that she doesn't sink too far into grief. There she has a breakthrough not attributable to any particular treatment and comes back home to her family. Since she has decided not to run away from difficult memories, she has to find a way to live with them.
Olivia is left behind (there's another much younger brother) to take care of the house, the family and her parents' emotions. When she eventually does leave to pursue her own life, she finds personal happiness - about which Hart never elaborates - and it is her very measured voice through which most of the macro story comes in the form of what reads like an Irish history lesson.
Meanwhile, Thomas Middlehoff, the "German stranger," has come to Ireland to hide from his past and to continue an extramarital affair with an English woman. Here is where Hart inserts her trademark obsessive erotic passion (which began with her first novel, Damage, about a man who carries on an affair with his son's fiancé, later turned into a film starring Jeremy Irons and Juliette Binoche). Middlehoff perseveres in Ireland despite never really losing his stranger status, and develops a bond with Olivia after saving her from being hit by a car. Their friendship lasts through the years, even after she leaves home, and it's to her that he finally confesses his personal history.
Josephine Hart's goal is an ambitious one: to juxtapose the personal experience of loss along side that of the collective. Her ode to Ireland in the voice of Olivia seems almost too intellectual beside her very real depiction of the unabated grief over the young deaths of two O'Hara children. The affecting narrative of loss, as difficult as it feels to tell and to read, is abandoned for some kind of all-encompassing polemic, and you find yourself wishing Hart would pick one or the other rather than try to fit both styles into one book. One can only conclude that this is very much her point: The political is personal.
Carla Lucchetta is a Toronto writer and television producer.