With at least one Oscar for Best Screenplay to his credit (The Crying Game) Neil Jordan is better known for his filmmaking than his fiction. But his recent novel, the moody and compelling Mistaken, could bring Jordan the wider audience he deserves.
Mistaken starts out as a mystery, one in which a young boy, KevinThunder, discovers he has a double – another boy so uncannily like him that they are often mistaken for each other. Set in 1960s Dublin, Kevin lives next door to Bram Stoker’s house, which he imagines is haunted by Dracula. His double, Gerald, has the sort of privileged upbringing that should make the distance between them unbridgable, and yet the tug between the two boys is as inexorable as the passage of time.
From the beginning, Kevin feels the life not lived. In fact, he has two lives – his birth life and the life his lookalike is leading, for as the book unfolds their two lives intertwine; they change identities when it suits them, and perhaps, Kevin thinks, even share the same soul.
The adult Gerald is a writer, though one who cannot bear to write about his present and instead lingers in the Irish past. While the pain of Gerald’s life is expressed in his writing, Jordan’s novel is itself a melancholy recreation of time and place that throbs with knowledge and experience one senses can only be autobiographical.
He returns again and again to the swans on the Tolka river, presenting an image of beauty rising above mud. Aside from their beauty, swans mate for life, but Kevin’s experience with his parents shows otherwise, and his mother drowns during one of his father’s absences.
A lodger, Tommy, has filled an upstairs room in their house with clocks. Eventually, Tommy disappears, leaving behind the clocks with their message of the relentlessness of time and the impossibility of ever retrieving what has once been lost. Kevin leaves home but returns again and again. Eventually both he and Gerald spend time in the room with the clocks, Gerald without his typewriter, Kevin tapping away on it as he ‘recusitates memories’.
Anyone who intends to read the book should stop reading at this point, because I’m going to give away both the underlying theme and the solution to the mystery.
Mistaken taps into a perennial fascination with doubles, and with lives not lived; it is built around the myth of the telepathic relationship between twins, and its plot arises from what becomes of them when they are separated. Neither boy is directly aware of the separation, and their subsequent adoption has been a secret, although one that has leaked.
It is tempting to add this novel to the great pile of others which have fastened on adoption as a handy plot device, but in truth it does not belong with them and the reason is that Jordan has dealt with a painful subject with great empathy. Adoption literature, and there is plenty of it, is inevitably driven by a character’s desire to reunite with a birth parent, and Kevin is no less keen for answers than other fictional adoptees, but what is striking in Mistaken are the tender feelings he holds for his parents, even when he knows they are not his by birth.
Adoptive parents rarely come off well in fiction. The precendent for their role was set out early on in fairy tale, a genre in which the good birth mothers are always dead and the mothers who take their place are despicable. Much modern fiction takes a fairy tale stance towards a woman who raises another woman’s child, but Mistaken refuses to walk well-trodden narrative paths.
Even Kevin’s philandering father is lovingly drawn in the end. His mother, he never stops loving, and his relationship with her is, perhaps, one of the novel’s more touching aspects. Even when he knows the truth Kevin insists that he only had one mother.
Kevin’s voice is irresistible, a lovely piece of work. In an interview, Jordan says an actor told him not to force the part, but to let the details build the character. There’s a lesson in there for those of us who write.
What Jordan has achieved is a novel that aches with the tangible sense of lives not lived. Melancholy enfolds not only the lost world of childhood but a particular kind of city life that has been lost. This is seen most vividly after the funeral of Kevin’s father, when the brothers go to the Hole In The Wall bathing beach that no longer has either a hole or a wall.
There are similarities between the themes in this novel and Jordan’s previous work. In The Past, published in 1980, a man searches for the truth about his parentage, while The Dream of a Beast, 1983, seems to share a sense of strangeness amid a character’s breakdown of identity.
In Mistaken the question is posed as to why Irish writers don’t write the present, but Jordan himself has written a novel in which decades of the past are lovingly evoked, one that only briefly touches on the present. By his own admission, Kevin and Gerald are both part of their creator, and he has given them to us with great flair, subtlety, and tenderness.
Mistaken is published by John Murray.