Seamus Deane’s novel ‘Reading in the dark’ was published in 1996. The narrative story stretches over a period of 26 years: from 1945 until 1971. It is the story of a young boy that follows him from his early childhood until adult life. ‘Reading in the dark’ is not about any childhood, but particularly about a childhood that stands for many lived in Catholic Derry during the years that incubated the troubles.
How the circumstances of a culture shaken by inner and outer troubles and violence effect the boy’s childhood shall be explained in the following text.
The narrative is told out of the perspective of a young boy who was born into a Catholic family in Derry. It has elements that suggest that the novel is an autobiography. At the same time, however, certain hints put this idea into question. Deane might have intentionally left the boy anonymous. There is never a name mentioned. Also his age remains concealed. The possible and most obvious reason for this is that Deane did not want to write an autobiography but wants to remain more general in his descriptions. One could call it a fictional autobiography. The circumstances could refer to any family in Catholic Derry. Through not giving the boy a name, Deane avoids fitting him with a political label as names can easily be associated with religious and political backgrounds. In spite of providing the boy with an identity, the attempt to discover and question his personal identity is emphasised.
Throughout the novel, the boy’s major attempt is to understand his culture and to find out who he and his family are. The reader perceives the people and circumstances around him from the boy’s point of view with all its incompleteness. When he becomes witness of an accident, we learn about the role the police play in Catholic Derry. Everyone hates the police; they are seen as a destructive force. The police officer’s carelessness towards the victim of the accident is mostly a symbol of a political act.
In another passage, the boy witnesses a talk of adults while he is hiding under the kitchen table. However, the child has no full, complete picture of what is going on. He makes the attempt to understand by piecing together the story of the past in darkness.
Furthermore, he has to learn how to deal with different versions of the past. Past, to him, is conveyed in folklore and most of all through stories told by the older generation. Difficulty arises when the boy slowly realizes that neither his mother, nor his father or his aunt tell the same story of what happened to the uncle and his aunt’s husband. Neither of them is omniscient. Different versions of the past appear and turn out to be incomplete, certain elements are simply not told so that an in itself logical version remains inexistent. His mother even hides her knowledge from her husband. The boy’s grandfather seems to have known even more. The boy also never knows the full extend of his father’s knowledge. Worst of all, every single family member suffers terribly under what they know.
Throughout the novel, the boy undergoes a narrative shift. From a passive, silenced, marginalised child he becomes the central controller of knowledge in his family. Certainly, he has to pay for it with being banished from his parents’ loving care and conversation for at least a while. But still he does not stop asking. His longing to know who he is is stronger than the respect he pays to his family members through being silent.
The master story of the novel develops to be the boy’s sad search for who he is. But there is nothing available for him. Trying to obtain a full account of the past proves impossible at the end. Sad enough, because he sacrifices a lot for it and does the best thing he can do.
Intentionally but out of ignorance and with a life-bringing purpose, the boy threatens the tradition and identity of the culture he is living in. Each culture practices a certain code of communication that each generation inherits from the preceding generation. This code is part of a culture, were it different, then the culture would be a different one as well. In Catholic Derry, it is part of the code of communication that certain topics remain untouched in conversation. One does not speak or ask questions about the past.