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Ghosts of the past,
This review is from: Mistaken (Hardcover)
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Neil Jordan is of course better known as a filmmaker, but I sometimes wonder whether he shouldn't receive more credit as a writer. Similar themes appear in both his films and books - coming to an accommodation with the past and with oneself, flawed characters carrying deep secrets, with a hint of supernatural or mysticism perhaps in there - but the material definitely seems to be given a more serious and credible examination in his novels, and - most importantly - it seems to touch on more personal subject matter.
Mistaken is a fine example of Jordan's writing, one that draws on the past, on childhood experiences, on growing up in Dublin in the 1960s, but it's one that, crucially, takes a distanced perspective, as if in awareness of the act of writing inevitably means creating a fiction of one's life. This is very much evident in the book's central conceit, where a young boy named Kevin Thunder, from a modest north Dublin working-class background feels that the has been living in the shadow of another person, a boy who looks exactly like him, Gerry Spain, but who has a more privileged southside upbringing. Being mistaken for someone else initially proves to be an annoyance to Kevin, but it also has its advantages, particularly when it comes to picking up the discarded girlfriends of his double. Inevitably however, the question of understanding one's true identity comes into question, both for Kevin and Gerry, as each of them come to wonder whether there isn't a third person that they have created between them.
That's very much a writer's conceit that has a number of well-known literary precedents from Mark Twain and Edgar Allan Poe to Dostoevsky - several of which are acknowledged in Mistaken - but inevitably, it's given more of a postmodernist spin here (which isn't exactly new either) on the question of identity and the role of the author. As such, home-grown literary giants such as Joyce and Stoker cast a long shadow over the two boys - quite literally in the case Kevin Thunder who grows up in the house next door to where Bram Stoker lived, and is haunted throughout by the shadow of his vampire creation - the division of those influences reflecting the split in the personality of two boys, made one perhaps in the author himself.
Such self-reflexive musings are interesting, but they do not become the overriding purpose of Mistaken, and Jordan finds a way to bring his own unique character to the writing with some beautiful childhood reminiscences of life in Dublin in the sixties (most of the chapter titles refer to Dublin locations). The Neil Jordan touches are there also in the obsessive dwelling on the past, memory, two halves seeking a whole and the skilful way he teases those elements out through an almost supernatural twist. Opening with a funeral, Mistake is also about Death in wider sense - the death of parents and a generation which nonetheless leave ghosts of a past that still haunt and direct the course of our lives.
Despite the clear personal input, the literary nature of the book does perhaps prevent the characters from fully coming to life, but that shouldn't be seen as a criticism, since the whole purpose of Mistaken is to examine "the inadequacies of fiction" in its creation of characters and in the dangerous pursuit of dreaming of another life. Nonetheless, the novel is beautifully written, wonderfully rich in imagery and observations, but also consistent and persuasive in its worldview and, ultimately, despite itself, even quite touching.