With a characterful cast of strong women and browbeaten men, Graham Norton’s atmospheric novel beautifully evokes the flavour of rural Ireland.
The unsettling mixture of homeliness and dread that swirls around Elizabeth’s story intensifies as Norton reveals the multiple layers of longing, sadness, cruelty and redemptive kindness that make up this tale.
Where there were glimpses of melodrama in Holding, here we are in gothic-horror territory with a Misery-style flashback plot. What really exhausted my credulity, though, was a subplot given to Elizabeth’s 17-year-old son. “There was too much going on in her life,” Norton writes of Elizabeth near the end of the novel. “How many more dramas would she have to endure before things became simple?” Readers will concur. This is a pity, because Norton writes well, and even as the plotting pushes towards implausibility his characters sustain interest.
Norton adroitly connects the shocking events in America with those that occurred in Elizabeth's Irish past and which are hidden in many lives. Whether it is the attitude of Elizabeth's ex-husband, her son, her unknown father or the randy West Cork neighbour, the novel exposes relationship dysfunction, brought about at any age, of lying to a woman. At one point, it appears that artistic licence surpasses a legal issue in the narrative. In his highly compelling novel, Norton interweaves incisive observations of human frailty and female resilience into a very skilled plot.
Much of the difficulty is due to this novel’s tone, which from the outset veers between melodrama (as when Elizabeth consigns her mother’s letters to “the dusty oblivion of the box”) and fizzy bonhomie (“‘Kilkenny!’ she cried as if it was Gaelic for Eureka”). A Keeper, according to its cover blurb, is “a twisted tale of secrets and ill-fated loves”, and while unpleasant surprises are indeed in store (we will return to those shortly), we are never quite sure whether to laugh or cry...There are traces here of the book this might have been. Norton has a keen eye for the quirks and textures of small Irish towns, and might have made a go of the dark and ribald comedy that seems at times to be straining to get out. But as A Keeper lurches to its sombre and oddly stagy finale, we are preoccupied not with what might have been but with what he could possibly have been thinking.
A Keeper, Norton's follow-up, isn't quite in Holding's class, but it's still a fine piece of work, blending a clever, unpredictable and satisfying mystery storyline with a sensitive exploration of the hearts and minds of its characters...As mentioned, the mystery is crafty, carefully constructed and, in the end, resolved well. And, as with Holding, where Norton really shines is in his understanding of, and compassion for, his characters. The presenter-turned-author really seems to get people and human nature. And from our perspective, there's the added pleasure of an author properly capturing Irish society and culture: from the way we talk to our intricate interactions, from the little details of life here to broader themes of what it is that makes Ireland different from anywhere else. This feels like an authentic Ireland; indeed, two authentic Irelands, one now and one then.
And I love the title, with its teeming assemblage of possible connotations. "A keeper" in the sense of a jailer or someone who watches over a place. Or in the sense of "he's a keeper": Mr Right, a man to hold on to. People keeping on going, keeping their counsel, keeping themselves to themselves, keeping schtum. And of course, keeping secrets.
Norton turns some nice phrases, but in telling two stories he seems to have taken on rather too much. The modern-day strand is over-populated with extraneous characters and superfluous detail. The writer certainly comes up with surprises here, but doesn’t give enough attention to the arc of the story to make them come alive... Norton suggests the questions but the lights of revelation are as dim as an oil lamp. For a truly gripping tale read his first autobiography.
Norton is perceptive on the nuances of relationships. Elizabeth’s loneliness is ever present though never overplayed, and her difficult ties with her extended family oscillate between frustration, anger, regret and resignation. The sense of Patricia’s isolation as a single parent in 1970s rural Ireland is sensitively handled, while in both the present and past sections, the politics of small-town communities are captured with insight and precision.
Norton cleverly mirrors the process of grieving in Patricia and Elizabeth’s stories, as the two women each mourn the passing of their mother. For Patricia, “the dead don’t vanish, they leave a negative of themselves stamped on the world”. As for Elizabeth, “back in New York, she had felt guilty for not missing her mother more, but in this house she felt her absence like a physical ache”. These are women whose roles as daughters and mothers are messy and complicated.
With Norton’s wry sense of humour throughout, A Keeper is a gripping, thoughtful tale about the search for identity, belonging and self-possession.
One of the greatest pleasures of reviewing, however, is being proved wrong. A Keeper won’t win Norton the Nobel prize for literature, but it is atmospheric, creepy and impossible to put down... Norton’s writing is witty, intelligent and strong enough to drown out the sound of his rather in-your-face public persona. A Keeper is an entertaining piece of Irish gothic, just the right side of believable, with a menagerie of shuddersome characters.