TLS November 9 2001
THE FISHER CHILD
(*this review refers to the Picador first hardback edition. It is now re-issued in a new edition from eMaker Editions).
In many ways, Philip Casey’s new novel, The Fisher Child, is an old-fashioned book, concerned with compassion, belonging and the gaining of experience. Throughout, however, we feel the impact of new technologies, perhaps making these searches into the past easier. Towards the end of the book, there is a scene in which we overhear Dan speaking to his wife and children on a mobile phone in the middle of an Irish moor, a scene impossible for earlier generations. Dan has stumped back to Ireland on his gammy leg to decide how he feels about his wife giving birth to a mysteriously black baby. Even as he self-consciously identifies with the landscape, he is talking to the people in London who want him back.
Elsewhere in the book, the Internet is used as a resource for compiling family trees, partly unearthing the truth of his lineage. This quietly compassionate story sees technology as something that will bring people closer, connecting them with voices, ancestries and folk tales previously thought missing.
Itself the third part of a trilogy, The Fisher Child divides neatly into three parts. In the first, Dan’s wife Kate becomes pregnant when they visit Florence. She obsesses for a while about figures of black men in Renaissance paintings; one particular Wise Man in a triptych seems to get under her skin. This prefigures the advent of her black baby, Meg, whom Dan swiftly rejects. The rest of the family talk very easily about black genes; indeed, their sophistication infuriates Dan, and he sinks into depression. Walking out on his young family, he returns to County Wexford, where his newly with-it and contented father is gardening organically and living in a solar-powered glass house.
But the reader doesn’t witness the epiphanies Dan has on the spongy moors,until the middle section, which tells the story of his ancestor, Hugh, and his involvement in the bloody events of the 1798 Rebellion. Distraught at the deaths of his entire family, Hugh leaves for the island of Montserrat where, in a moving, sensuous sequence, he becomes a small-time landowner and the lover of a black slave. Ama bears Hugh three children: two black girls
and one white boy. Her favouring of the boy, rejection of the girls, and the inevitably tragic climax are painful to read; the writing conjures pathos and brutality simultaneously.
Casey puts the reader in the strange position of knowing more about this family than the present-day, clued-up characters. We know how the “black gene” has slipped into the pool. We know Dan is right, when he realizes that he needs to arrive at compassion and acceptance by growing up a little. He marvels at his father’s sudden sophistication and the way an old trauma has been healed. Dan berates his own “prissiness”, his own need to see everything “absolute” and “black and white”; his sex, we learn, is to blame for that – though perhaps it should be put down to his being an architect.
By the ending, Dan has experienced the “rush of hurt” he needs to feel at the idea of separation from his family. Casey eases Dan (rather indulgently) into seeing that the troublesome times of others around him outweigh his own preoccupations. Dan is never granted as much historical knowledge as the reader, but even withou