DOREEN FINN’s lyrical new book, set during a long hot Irish summer, impresses Sophie Grenham …
In my experience, the best anecdotes are often shared when an interview is officially over. Writer Doreen Finn shares a snippet about Michael Stipe from R.E.M, whose similarly-named song from Automatic for the People album (1992) inspired her new novel, Night Swimming. Two decades ago, her brother Alan Finn, a television producer based in Los Angeles, phoned her in the wee hours of the morning from a most unusual location. “Alan had been working on a documentary about R.E.M.,” Finn tells me, her whole face lighting up. “He said, ‘Guess where I am? I’m in Michael Stipe’s kitchen!’ He knew I was a massive fan. Then I did meet Michael twice, at concerts. He’s very quiet and reserved but not unfriendly or cold. A very good friend of mine is a very good friend of his. I’m sending him a copy of my book.”
Like some cosmic signal, Nightswimming came on the radio while she composed her first draft, but the book wouldn’t come to fruition until 15 years later. Her debut novel My Buried Life (New Island, 2015) was critically-acclaimed, but Finn never let go of her original vision. Prior to becoming an author her background has mainly been in academia. She has a BA in English and Spanish, a HDip and an MA in Education from UCD. She currently teaches at Muckross Park College in Donnybrook.
Like her brother, Finn has many interesting tales from LA where she lived for five years from 2003. She worked as a casting assistant for two years, and was a “background artiste” for a George Clooney television project, where they bonded over a mutual love of coffee. In 2004, Finn met her American actor husband Mark Schrier with whom she has two children, Emily (10) and David (7). They made a permanent move to Churchtown, Co Dublin in 2009. We chat over a cafetière and croissants in their pleasantly airy kitchen, while rain pelts the skylights.
Night Swimming is set during the heatwave of 1976, in a large Victorian house in Ranelagh. Gemma, an artist and single mother lives here with her own mother Sarah and her nine-year-old daughter Megan. That summer, their lives are shaken up when an American family rents their garden flat. They are: Chris, a charming academic; Judith, his warm homemaker wife and their precocious pre-teen daughter, Beth. Next door is Mrs Sullivan, a conservative Catholic whose sons are Daniel and his boisterous older brother Stevie. The retrospective narrative is told through Megan’s eyes, whose hawkish observance of adults make this a pure, unfiltered read.
Like many youngsters, Megan fixates on expressions even if she doesn’t quite grasp their meaning, particularly “night swimming.” The literal definition is implied, but it’s also a euphemism for something darker. When rebellious Beth suggests they sneak out to paddle in the Grand Canal with Daniel and Stevie, it’s an alien concept for an Irish child.
“You couldn’t night swim in Ireland – you’d freeze to death!” Finn laughs. “Night swimming doubles as a metaphor for the loss of innocence. Going back to the R.E.M song, Michael Stipe is from Georgia, which is where Chris is from. I have no doubt night swimming was a part of Michael’s childhood.”
One of the novel’s successes, along with gorgeous sensory language and impeccable pacing, is the effortless synergy between the Irish family and their exotic visitors. The Americans bring a smorgasbord of new discoveries such as rock music, Judith’s culinary prowess with spicy dishes, not to mention Chris’s long hair, jeans and sandals which far outclass standard 1970s dad clothing. Then you have sophisticated Beth who regularly challenges authority. While Megan is happy just being a child, the presence of her foreign neighbours encourages her to question and consider a world beyond her suburban bubble. Megan contemplates a life in which she has a father. Her “half-orphan” status brings unfortunate feelings of responsibility for how her mother is judged in society: all she knows of her father is that he was a Bolivian photographer called Felipe, who disappeared. However, while it’s important for the character to wonder about her lineage, she remains contented with her lot.
“I didn’t want to make Night Swimming a misery story,” Finn says, evenly. “I wanted Gemma to be defiant enough to stand up to people. She had the backing of her mother, which was brilliant, because so many girls gave away their babies with the blessings of their parents. I thought let’s look at ‘unmarried motherhood’ and see it in its positive light. Instead of having misery, loneliness and sorrow, why not have Gemma living her life, as everybody who has a baby does?” Regardless of her own ideologies, Finn’s pragmatic treatment of the single mother, a possible extra-marital dalliance (between Gemma and Chris) and even the pious neighbour next door, shows her commendable ability to sidestep stereotypes.
I think Night Swimming was meant to germinate for as long as it did. The timing of last year’s epic heatwave feels like fate. Finn would have been knee-deep in edits converting her thoughts into technicolour. As for Stipe, I have every confidence he’d enjoy Finn’s languid visual prose, should the book find a way into his hands.
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