It's Saturday night in the Rainsford House Hotel in County Meath, Ireland, and farmer Maurice Hannigan, 84, looks back on a life well-lived, if not wisely. He has five drinks in honour of the five people who have shaped his time on earth and knows that his fifth will be his last. I loved the slow, gentle pace if When All Is Said, which never once strayed towards mawkishness. This could be one of the big book hits of 2019.
With echoes of Any Human Heart, this is a proper tear-jerker, but one that will ultimately leave you feeling hopeful.
Griffin, a former bookseller and a short-story writer, presents Maurice’s reflections as a series of vivid vignettes. She builds a remarkably rich sense of place, while also tracing the wider changes affecting Ireland. Maurice comes from a line of dairy farmers who couldn’t afford to eat meat. As a young man, he begins buying up little plots of land, handing over “criminally small payments” to farmers packing up to become miners or barmen...But When All Is Said is not quite the “rare jewel” promised, more a charming, if everyday, piece of quartz.
It’s a bittersweet novel in which we root for Maurice even as we despair of his meanness. But the cute five-toast concept and occasional plot contrivance (the loss of a gold sovereign provides some false jeopardy) can’t disguise a lack of narrative movement. The story shares some similarities with François Mauriac’s 1932 novel, The Knot of Vipers, a confessional work about an embittered old man reflecting on a lifetime of hardships and personal vendettas. But it lacks the same bite. Griffin strains so hard to make everything cosy and relatable, the prose often turns out a little bland. Sadie’s eyes are as blue “as a clear Meath summer sky”. When the pretty owner of the hotel smiles, it’s “as delicious as a big dollop of cream on a slice of warm apple pie”.
Griffin’s novel was apparently inspired by a chance encounter in a hotel bar with an elderly man who confided that he worked in the building as a boy and that he expected the night to be his last. As a novel whose central themes are grief, separation and mental illness it would be very easy for the writing to become bogged down in self-pity. Yet Maurice Hannigan emerges as an engaging, compassionate creation who seems fully aware that he conforms to a stereotype: “As for Irish men, I’ve news for you. It’s worse as you get older. It’s like we tunnel ourselves deeper into our aloneness. Solving our problems on our own. Men, sitting alone at bars going over and over the same old territory in their heads.”