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I managed to squeeze The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne into the end of Read Ireland month. I knew my review would be several days late. Brian Moore is a new to me author, though I have seen a lot of positive reviews for this novel and others. My lovely nyrb classics edition an ebay buy. Well how could I not buy this beautiful edition?

People said I would love this book – and they were right – there was so much to admire in Moore’s writing. Though it was an enjoyment tinged with sadness, for the story of Judith Hearne is not a happy one. We know that much from the title.

Judith Hearne – Judy – is a literary creation we remember, long after we have closed the book, and there is an irony in that, for in life she is the kind of woman we over look, or having met, instantly forget. Yet, Brian Moore won’t let us forget her quite so easily, he recreates her world with pinpoint perfection, showing us, the inner turmoil she tries so hard to hide from the world. We hear the bitter little conversations she has with herself – the small, vain delusions she tries to convince herself of. Desperate for one last chance at what other women have.

 “She watched the glass, a plain woman, changing all to the delightful illusion of beauty. There was still time: for her ugliness was destined to bloom late, hidden first by the unformed gawkiness of youth, budding to plainness in young womanhood and now flowering to slow maturity in her early forties, it still awaited the subtle garishness which only decay could bring to fruition: a garishness which, when arrived at, would preclude all efforts at the mirror game.”

As the novel opens Judith Hearne is moving into new lodgings in Belfast. She has come down in the world from the one she was born to. Brought up by her genteel aunt, who she later spent years caring for she is an unmarried woman of certain age with no obvious attractions. Destroyed, in effect by circumstances. We watch Judy go through the small moving in rituals that we sense she has gone through before – lovingly unpacking the silver framed picture of her aunt, briefly seeing her surroundings through her aunt’s eyes. Next comes the cheap mass produced oleograph of the Sacred Heart – which will be hung on the wall. There are still her trunks to be unpacked properly – no need to rush, she can do it in time, the slow finding of places to put things all part of the ritual. There are also new people to meet, her fellow lodgers, and what kind of breakfast will her new landlady Mrs Henry Rice serve?

At breakfast – just tea and toast, and a kipper on Sundays, Judy meets her fellow boarders, Mr Leneham, Miss Friel and Mr Madden. Mr Leneham a proud, opinionated Irishman, Miss Friel a small neat woman with her abstinence brooch clearly displayed on her collar, Mr Madden the brother of Mrs Henry Rice, returned lately to Ireland after twenty nine years in America. The two final members of the household are; Bernard, Mrs Henry Rice’s adult son, a grossly proportioned, idle malevolence, and Mary the young maid. Mr Madden is the only person to give Judy anything approaching a second glance. His friendliness goes to her head instantly – he talks to her about America. Judy later goes to the library to read more about New York, quick to capitalise on this new and unexpected friendship. James Madden, Judy learns was in hotels – and Judy’s imagination is fired up. She is excited – she has so much now, to tell her friends on Sunday.

“For it was important to have things to tell which interested your friends. And Miss Hearne had always been able to find interesting happenings where other people would find only dullness. It was, she often felt, a gift which was one of the great rewards of a solitary life. And a necessary gift. Because, when you were a single girl, you had to find interesting things to talk about. Other women always had their children and shopping and running a house to chat about. Besides which, their husbands often told them interesting stories. But a single girl was in a different position.”

Each Sunday Judith Hearne visits her friends the O’Neills, Professor Owen O’Neill, his wide Moira, and their four children Una, Shaun, Kevin and Kathleen. Judy is proud of her friends, their gracious home, enjoys feeling a part of the family – unaware that the younger members of the family call her the great bore. She sits drinking sherry by the fire – and catches sight of the children’s small sharp smiles from time to time – and tells herself off for repeating well worn phrases that give the youngsters something to smirk at. The terrible awkwardness of these scenes is brilliantly portrayed, full of pathos and a deep understanding of loneliness.

Eking out an existence by teaching piano – and with the number of pupils dropping off, Judy tries not to spend money on meals if she can manage not to – so we know she hasn’t much money – but James Madden is under the impression that she does. In Judy, Madden – who we quickly realise is not a nice man – sees an opportunity. While heartbreakingly; in Madden, Judy sees the ‘last one’ – her last chance of love and marriage.

“And maybe, although it was a thing you could hardly bear to think about, like death or your last judgment, maybe he would be the last one ever and he would walk away now and it would only be a question of waiting for it all to end and hoping for better things in the next world. But that was silly, it was never too late.” 

Poor Judy – we really can’t help but call her that – we know she is fragile – a woman with a big secret, and she’s just one more big disappointment away from bringing everything crashing down on top of herself.

Moore’s storytelling is honest – he has a sympathy for Judith Hearne and her ilk – and in reading this, his sympathy becomes our own. We witness Judy’s descent into further degradation – and it’s like watching a car crash in slow motion. The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is a wonderfully nuanced novel and a searing exposition of loneliness.

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