Maeve Casey’s debut novel, Tribal Gods, starts at the end.
“You died and I didn’t know. At one forty-two, yesterday, Wednesday. Where was I just then, that moment as you breathed your last?”
The novel opens with memorable first lines, as Rose Leahy learns of the death of her greatest friend, Grace Donovan.
The story then rewinds to when the two met in their final year of school. It’s early 1970s Dublin, a time when girls faced only two options: to be trained in “domestic science” for marriage and family if she was a “dud”; or to study the ancient beauty of the Greek myths and the Latin language, if she was a “better student”.
An incident in their school causes Rose to move to a new school to finish her studies, and it is there that she is gets the opportunity to pursue her love of maths and sciences. Upon graduation from college, she starts work as a pharmacist.
Meanwhile, Grace, described by some as daring and brazen, first takes a year-long homemaker’s course to satisfy her elderly mum, and then acquires shorthand and typing skills and starts work at the age of 21.
Many stories feature two girls who meet and become lifelong friends, but Casey’s novel does not tread the cliched path of having them grow apart over a conflict and then come back together.
Rather, the charm of Tribal Gods lies in its simplicity: it is a story about two women who remain in each other’s lives through thick and thin.
The differences in the girls’ personalities are evident not only in their career choices but also their love lives.
Rose marries a college sweetheart, Pete, with whom she has a daughter, Ann; Grace gravitates toward the transient kind of love, adamant in her wish not to marry and succumb to the love of only one man.
Grace engages in short-lived relationships with different men, from her first lover, Juan, to her final one, married Paul.
Casey captures the banality of these associations beautifully in this description of the closeness between Grace and Paul: “He became a part of Grace’s routine, as comfortable as an old shoe and familiar sock. He called to her apartment twice weekly, made it something of his second (city) home.”
The two protagonists are compelling, although the character of Rose is better formed. Casey depicts her in different situations – as a student, a girlfriend, a fiancée, a wife, a staff member, a colleague, a mother, and so on – whereas all the major events in Grace’s life are in some way linked to her encounters with her different lovers.
Grace’s trip to Spain is where she meets Juan and loses her virginity; her growth in the business world is unveiled at the same time as her relationship with Andy is narrated; her abortion, a result of her affair with Father Y, is never again referred to.
But everything changes when Grace has cancer. As she tackles her illness with humour, the reader gets another glimpse into her character and that quintessential quality – the ability to laugh at life, as shown early in the book, on the day she met Rose.
If there is any weaknesses in this novel, it is that Casey sometimes spends too much time on minor points when a quick glance would have been enough, and skims over others that would have benefitted from a bit more attention.
When she expounds on moments in the plot where a simple line would have been sufficient, it leaves the reader feeling like a woman sitting in a car being driven by her husband while impatiently tapping her foot as she waits for him to admit they are lost and ask for directions. An example is two and half pages of Rose reading through surveys for her husband Pete’s new business.
By contrast, there’s hardly a mention of the girls’ families, apart from a few bits in the first two chapters, even though the novel contains accounts of a wedding, a christening, and a funeral.
The use of different points of view should provide multiple insights into the story. Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies is a great example of this form, as it’s told from as many as 20 different perspectives: students, teachers, administrators, girlfriends and a doughnut shop manager.
But in Tribal Gods, the use of multiple perspectives creates gaps in the narrative. That’s because some of the narrators – Rose’s little daughter Ann, for example – do not add much of value to the storyline.
Tribal Gods deals graciously with a lot of hard issues – abortion, terrorism, and cancer – with an earnestness that does not overwhelm them.