reviewed by Matthew Funk
When I was eight years old I read the novel The High Deeds of Finn MacCool by Rosemary Sutcliffe. The most compelling part of the story for me was the tale of Diarmaid and Grainne. I’ve never forgotten it and I liked the idea of putting a contemporary spin on this classic.
McKinty’s “Diarmaid and Grainne” Sings a Sad Old Song in a New Tune
It’s the hallmark of a good fable: The first thing you’ll want to do after reading Adrian McKinty’s “Diarmaid and Grainne” is to read it again.
Not because it was confusing, though it is a mystery. Not because there were parts you may’ve skimmed, because its pacing is a tight leash. Not because you missed anything. Rather, because you miss it.
There is some marvelous loveliness in “Diarmaid and Grainne.” The kind you want to set awhile with, like any good sunset. As I’m unwilling to spoil both the mystery and central problem of the book, I won’t tell you what the loveliness leads up to. It is sorely missed when the story ends, though.
Fortunately, the story takes its time. It is not too short, the path of its narrative having all the bends in the path and sunny glades to make the journey pleasant. We follow our undercover police officer as he prepares to tell his young lady love, a barmaid in a Real IRA-sympathetic small town, that he’s been spying on her fellow villagers. Its premise is an echo of a tale from the legends of Finn MacCool of the same name, and in “Diarmaid and Grainne,” Adrian McKinty has moments that resonate with the simple poetry that makes myth so enduring. Descriptions of fog, of waiting, of the sea, don’t just soak into our memory. Their meaning permeates the narrative, giving it a greater substance. They make the things described mean more by being alloyed together. And rich meaning in simple stories is the flesh of myth.
In many ways a story about waiting, the sole flaw in “Diarmaid and Grainne” could easily be taken as a strength. The denouement—the resolution after the climax—is a long, cool sustain that earns as much ink as the climactic moment did. This balance could prove uncomfortable for some, especially since the feeling that McKinty rings in the reader is a potent one. But in a story about waiting—especially one so exquisitely rendered—having that slow settling to an end emphasizes that central message. It forces us to endure the quiet acceptance of fate, to steep in the feelings of the characters, and then to quietly bid it all goodbye. These themes are part of the soul of the piece, and so forcing that soul into our experience might be as brilliant as it is unsettling to read.
The prose style the piece is a pleasure. In a craft where authors must “tell only what is needed,” but are given no inventory of the necessary, McKinty hits on it with a talent that seems both thoughtful and intuitive. He often partners two seemingly unrelated sentences that, when brought so close, have a louder, clearer and more lingering message. For one instance of many, putting, “Everything would be alright” next to “her eyes were emerald” doesn’t just make those facts leap out, it makes the meaning the narrator places on their relation glow into relief. Simple statements take on great meaning.
The value of “Diarmaid and Grainne,” ultimately, is that it is the kind of love story that can and must echo. There is no real moral and, so far as mysteries go, it is a very plain one. McKinty does not try to attire his prose in savvy Irish slang; he doesn’t chart the IRA’s inner workings; he doesn’t lard dialogue with regional twang. The story stays simple, devoting itself to illustrating this sad chord of romance. It does honor to its mythic legacy, preserving the poetry in the framework of modern prose. Ageless as the fable is, “Diarmaid and Grainne” by McKinty finds the music to relate it clear as ever in a new noir tune.