The genius of this clever little novel is in its structure. Cunningham was a positive genius to come up with this and, since reading it, I can't help but think how other novels I have loved could have been done in the same way. My only problem with the story was the formatting style. Instead of using traditional quotation marks, there was an em-dash preceding all bits of dialog but none following it. Thus, unless there was an attribution like "he said" or "she whispered" I was never really sure what was dialog and what was exposition. Because of this I spent the first couple of chapters struggling to adjust to the odd format style. I think readers would find the story more accessible without that.
The story begins in the 1970s when a solicitor is administering the will of the recently departed "Ismay", also known as "Iz", an English woman who lived most of her life in Ireland. The solicitor, who had nursed a quiet, life-long love for Iz, has two envelopes with the instruction to read them and then destroy them. The first one is labeled "Hector" the name of Ismay's son. The second is labeled "Iz".
In Hector we enter the world of Iz, Hector's mother, who is married to Ronnie, an upper-class ne'er-do-well, who lives in a lighthouse on the Irish coast. World War II is on and life is difficult. There are many struggles not the least of which is coping with the foolish choices of Ronnie when it comes to money, responsibility, and other women. Throughout the story Iz is continually challenged by the problems of aging parents, being a good mother, managing finances such as they are and dealing with Ronnie who can be sweet and endearing when he has screwed something up which is pretty often.
As I was reading it I thought, as I often have with books of this type, why in the blue blazes a beautiful, intelligent, sophisticated woman like Iz stayed with a philandering, useless clod like Ronnie? In some ways Iz reminded me of Stella in Patrick McGrath's Asylum. Iz struggles through one screw up after another from her charming but useless husband and has a few romances of her own. Finally she has had enough and decides to devote herself solely to her son who is a grown man in the British Army being sent to Northern Belfast during the IRA conflicts. The story is difficult and heart-breaking and, as it ended, I really wondered if I could handle Part Two. I'm glad I kept reading.
Part Two, "Iz" begins a few years before Part One began. Now we go back in time to examine the life of young Iz, the beautiful, head-strong daughter of Anglo-Irish parents living on an estate - rich in land, poor in cash - during World War II and the beginning of the Irish struggle for independence. This part of the story is far more intriguing as we see young Iz among her sisters who all have different goals for their lives, come to womanhood on an estate that they are constantly in danger of losing. Iz could be the estate's salvation because she is being actively courted by Norman, a prosperous young man who offers to cultivate the estate and keep it profitable so that his future wife's family will be safe from the growing Irish unrest. But Iz's heart is in another direction, a young Irish dock worker who is penniless but whom she loves.
It is impossible to write more about this story without giving away too much but suffice it to say that when you reach the finally pages of Part Two, the incomprehensible parts of Part One are made clear.
This is a beautifully written, stylishly lovely book and, if not for the bizarre choice in formatting, would have earned 5 stars from me.