The Home Scar
The Home Scar
On opposite sides of the world, half-siblings Cassie, an artist, and academic Christo have built their lives around work, intent on ignoring their painful past – until a memorable detail from Christo’s draws them back to Galway, where they are confronted with the havoc their mother left in her wake before her death. A story of physical and emotional discovery, the love of fast-living parents and the shaping of identities, The Home Scar is former broadcast journalist Kathleen MacMahon’s fourth novel. Her beautifully simple style belies psychological complexity, social context is subtly drawn and her tone is wryly accepting.
How was the idea for The Home Scar born? It begins with a submerged forest being revealed in a storm, but were the characters already formed in your mind?
The drowned forest that appears in the opening scene of the novel is an ancient one that was revealed on the west coast of Ireland by an Atlantic storm. I saw a report of it in the paper, and it seemed to me the perfect opener for the novel I already had in progress, about two siblings who travel back to the scene of a childhood summer in Connemara that they remember as idyllic. We’ve all had those summers, which seem in retrospect to be an endless succession of sunny days and trips to the beach and “ice cream-spiked laughter”. The reality was different and much darker and my job as a novelist was to expose it, in the same way that the storm had exposed the drowned forest.
Cassie and Christo remember their mother very differently. Is that because she was different with them or because memory is fallible?
That’s such an interesting question, and one that really goes to the heart of the novel. It’s my belief that we are each of us a different person with each of the different people in our lives. There’s a lot of science involved – the mother-son dynamic is different to the mother-daughter dynamic, and there’s a chemistry to the interplay of different personalities. In the case of Cassie, she’s resentful of her mother’s narcissism, which she feels made a stagehand of her. Christo remembers their mother as a vulnerable person, because she leaned on him for protection.
Cassie’s lover Eduardo has a confidence and contentment that contrasts with the longings and uncertainties of many of the other characters. If we delved further, would we find he was the same?
No, with Eduardo the contentment and confidence run right through him. He has enjoyed the very best kind of privilege – a happy and secure upbringing, surrounded by women who adore him. He’s a product of his history, in the same way that Cassie is a product of hers, and he finds it hard to understand why things are so complicated for her. He’s like the buildings he designs to be earthquake proof – when things happen to him, he sways but he doesn’t crumble. Cassie’s foundations are much less stable, for reasons that become apparent.
At one point Jim says the hedonism and recklessness of his peers was a contrast to the oppression of the nuns and priests – “We thought we were the goodies.” Is the final reckoning with them still to come?
That’s a hard one. There’s no doubt that the priests and nuns have lost their power over us, and we’ve seen that in the really joyful liberalisation of Ireland’s laws in the last decade. The churches are empty – there’s virtually nobody takes anything they say seriously anymore – so we are finally free of their influence over our lives. I think the final reckoning will take much longer, because we still don’t understand why we gave them such power, why we allowed them to lock up our daughters and abuse our children and tell us how to live. I think we’ll be a long time answering those questions.
What’s the relationship between journalism and novel writing for you? Was journalism a source of endless ideas or frustration you couldn’t delve deeper? And how does it inform your style?
I actually loved the pace of TV news. It’s like speed-dating for writers. It’s a very healthy way to work, because you clear your desk at the end of every day. I still find it hard to get used to the pace of novel writing, where a book can be in progress for five years. I learned so much from writing scripts, particularly the importance of story. That’s something that’s easy to forget when you’re writing fiction, because you’re so busy crafting beautiful sentences. But the story is always the most important thing, and I like to have a context for it because what’s happening around us informs everything. That’s the journalist in me.
A quick non-exhaustive count shows that over the last couple of years we’ve interviewed Colin Barrett, Donal Ryan, Patrick McCabe, Eimear Ryan, and John Banville about their books. Is Irish literature is going through a fertile period at the moment or was it ever thus?
Oh, I think it was ever thus. I often joke that the market needs regulation – you should have to apply for a license to publish a book in Ireland. There’s so much competition, and the standard is ridiculously high, with really exciting new writers emerging all the time. From a relatively small population of only seven million people you have world-class books emerging on an almost weekly basis. It’s hugely exacting to be a writer working in that environment. We all have to be at the very top of our game!
So much of the history of the west of Ireland is about the leaving of it – for the cities or for other countries. Is history being made now about people returning?
I think there’s been a huge change, not just in the movement of people but in their mindsets. The mother in The Home Scar was part of a generation who had to escape to survive – “out of there quick enough I couldn’t get!” – but Ireland has changed so much in the intervening decades that it’s no longer a place to leave. It’s a much more liberal, much kinder place than it used to be, with the result that my children’s generation are not hell-bent on getting out. The lifestyle in the west of Ireland is a big draw for young people who want a good work-life balance and affordable accommodation. Those young people will re-write the history of the west, along with the new immigrant population who come and make it their own.