After This

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Alice McDermott, Bloomsbury, £10.99

A hurricane uproots the weeping willow tree in the Keane family's back garden. It is a portent: the year is 1960 and the beginning of an era of tremendous change. Earlier in the day the Irish-American Catholic family had guiltily skipped Mass to enjoy a picnic on the beach. The two boys were playing war games in the sand dunes with their toy soldiers: the storm was brewing.

The narrative is set against the background of the tumultuous changes of the 1960s, played out by the experiences of a fairly ordinary middle class suburban family and their friends and neighbours. Over everything looms the shadow of the Vietnam War.

These are the years that saw the legalisation of abortion, the flourishing of the women's movement and the development of a huge vocal anti-war movement that finally brought an end to the conflict in Vietnam. It was the time for protest, for politicisation and the burgeoning of the civil rights movement. It was also the era of sex, drugs and soul.

The characters in the novel live out their lives against this background and are all influenced by these changes, but essentially (and there is power in the writing and the understatement) there is no room for movements in this novel and no mention at all of the civil rights movement.

There is a preoccupation with spirituality and the loss of the past; even as one of the Keane sons enjoys the new sexual freedom of his generation he remembers a line from a Catholic prayer beginning: "And after this our exile..." It is the life of suburban white middle class America.

That much said, this is fascinating reading. How enjoyable to be rewarded as a reader with some intelligence - someone who does not need every last detail spelt out.

Alice McDermott takes pleasure in tantalising us with the juxtaposition of past, present and future - dropping clues as to what may happen later, reflecting back on past events. We are invited to share the characters' most private thoughts - the narrative is driven by the range of voices - and to empathise with their dilemmas. McDermott's acute observation of the human condition sometimes makes you wince at the accuracy of those unspoken, ungenerous thoughts that we all have from time to time. There is many an expressive turn of phrase, economical use of language - one character's "tinny loneliness" says it all.

The Keane family - parents and four children - struggle with the relevance of the Catholicism that is their background, with the guilt and the yearning.

At the daughters' Catholic school the teaching about birth and the propaganda about abortion are nearly equally horrific, as if only chastity is a commendable "state" for women. When a nun preaches to the girls on the anniversary of the legalisation of abortion one of the students protests against the hypocrisy: "Thousands of grown up babies died in Vietnam. Why didn't they pass a law against that?"

This novel was published in the US last year, and here just now, just as the world is ravaged by another war, a war given a scurrilous religious sanctity by its perpetrators, the deadly couple of Bush and Blair. Twice in the novel a father whose son has returned from Vietnam as a completely wrecked human being exhorts another father with the words, "Shoot him in the foot... Break his legs before you let him go." The same could be said today. It's a pertinent novel.