Time Present and Time Past by Deirdre Madden


My ten favorite books list this year may have more than ten books: this is another one that I admired greatly. I read another book by Deirdre Madden (Molly Fox's Birthday) and like this one as well or better.

The Buckley family in Dublin during the flush economic times is the subject of this lovingly told story that centers on Fintan, a man who loves a good hearty lunch and immediately afterward looks forward to a nice dinner with his family. His wife Colette, college-age sons Rob and Niall and the 7-year-old Lucy have a pleasant and happy family life together. The author introduces all the Buckleys: the mean-spirited mother Joan, her much-loved sister Beth, Fintan's sister Martina, we get to know all their stories and the connections to each other.

The placid Fintan is having his version of a personal crisis:

He thinks of how, after dinner the other night, he had asked his whole family to sit quietly for a moment before they dispersed. When it happened he could hardly have said why he wanted it; it had been a spontaneous request. Now he thinks that maybe it had had something to do with the idea of stopping time, of working against just this rush of life that he finds so disturbing. He had wanted to keep the moment, to preserve it, and even by the strangeness of his request to make of it something that they might all remember.

He develops an interest in early color photography and his son Niall brings home books from the library they look at together. He tells Niall that he likes the way photographs stop time and Niall looks at him in surprise and explains they do not stop time and do not look real, but are a construct. Fintan cannot explain the ideas and emotions the photographs bring to him.

 Fintan visits his sister Martina to borrow a picture of an ancestor whose name no one remembers, a beautiful woman that Martina resembles. While they look for it, she finds a picture of themselves with their grandmother they had visited in Northern Ireland during the time of the Troubles. Later they visit the area after many years absence and are moved when they find the exact location of that photograph.

One day while looking at a book of photographs he begins to remember his childhood visits to his grandmother. As he recalls the frightening events involving soldiers appearing, he opens his eyes and is stunned to find himself a middle aged man sitting at the kitchen table.

The narrative arc is not much of an arc: Fintan's "crisis" doesn't cause the family any disruption. The mystery of Martina's abrupt return to Dublin from London is explained in the course of her unspoken rumination of the events. Time is speeded up in that the effects of the economic crash in Ireland on each member of the family is briefly summarized in a chapter near the end of the book.

What makes this book so pleasing is the appealing nature of all the characters (except the dreadful Joan) and the comfortable recounting of their ordinary days and their lovely connections to each other.

Deirdre Madden, Time Present and Time Past, Europa Editions (originally published in England by Faber & Fabor), 2014, 160 pages. Available at the UVa and public libraries and through Amazon.



  • I’m reading this now and it is so good. I’m going to wait to read your review until I’m finished with it, but I don’t want to forget to comment on Madden’s throwaway line describing Winnie the Pooh: “yellow and dumb in his bum-freezer red jumper.” Funny and so on point! All those “um”s evoking Pooh’s stumbling, bumbling way… So good! Can’t wait to read your thoughts about this book.

  • I loved this one too! The first chapter especially blew me away. Her description of the carrot cake when Fintan loses his sense of reality was wonderful. In that same chapter, when Fintan visits the garden after his lunch and before going to the coffee shop, he notices “gaudy flowerbeds” and a tiny garden that is “absurdly pretty.” Those descriptors stuck out to me and I’m still not sure what to make of them. It’s a small detail, but I’m puzzling over what she meant by that. I wonder if it was meant to illustrate Fintan’s heightened senses, sort of as a precursor and postlude to his disconnect from reality at his lunch and at the cafe. Anyway, it was a pleasure to spend time with these characters.

  • I will have to read that first chapter again and think about those dramatic descriptors.
    I read what I wrote about the other book of hers that I’ve read — Molly Fox’s Birthday — and remembered how I loved those characters too. And good news, the Decorah Public Library has that book!


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