I’m not a big fan of weddings. I’m not averse to a glass of champagne, and if I manage to get several of them into me, I can even maintain high spirits through the sit-down and the first course of the meal. Then it’s up to the wine to get me through the main course and the speeches and the drunken dancing. The smoking is the bit I like best, when the most maudlin and maladjusted of the guests gravitate outside to talk and cadge fags off each other while the cheerier souls do the conga. There was one wedding when the priest became my smoking buddy. It was a January affair, and bitterly cold outside, but even so it was better to be outside smoking than inside dancing or, even worse, sitting at an empty table at the edge of the ballroom trying to hold a conversation over the music. The priest and I agreed, weddings are the worst.
A funeral, at the very least, is based on facts but weddings are built on notions. The notion that you could take two people, who in some cases are barely more than strangers to each other and who in all cases carry with them the baggage of their disparate families and childhoods, and join them together with a few hasty promises and the expectation that they will thereby live happily ever after – well, it’s a tall order, don’t you think? I’ve been married for over twenty years, and while I would without hesitation say that it’s working out well so far, I’m of the view that the jury is always out on a marriage.
Even the happiest of marriages are a mystery not just to the outsider but to the couple themselves, which is why they’re such good territory for a writer. My new novel, Nothing but Blue Sky, has at its centre the twenty-year marriage between David and Mary Rose. Both from Dublin, he’s a television journalist and she’s a nurse, and while the children Mary Rose hoped for never came, David has always believed their marriage to be a happy one. It’s only when Mary Rose is killed, suddenly and highly improbably, that he has cause to think again.
The novel is situated largely in a holiday village on the coast of Catalonia, where David and Mary Rose always spent their annual summer holiday. I know the place well (although I’ve changed its name) because my husband and I have been going there for twenty years. The village has changed very little in those years – the green sea and the pine trees and the small stony coves are the same as they ever were – but the people of the place had no choice but to change. The son of the family that owns the restaurant on the seafront was a little boy when we first came. Now he runs the place. His grandfather always sat in a wicker chair inside the door, until we arrived one year to find him gone. The nice old English couple who liked to put-put around the bay in a dinghy were there every summer until the summer they weren’t. When you return to a place, year on year, you see life unfolding in these flash frames. This seemed to me an interesting spine for a novel about life unfolding inside a marriage.
The rise of nationalism in Catalonia was another thing we’d noticed year on year. The flags began to proliferate, and the Catalan language became more prominently used in signage and information, until we began to notice that Castilian was sometimes omitted altogether. I found all this very interesting, and a little alarming, and it seemed to me that it had a place in the book. So too did Donald Trump and Brexit, and the sense I had as I was writing it that the course of world affairs was becoming more and more improbable. To David, who had started working a journalist in the nineteen nineties (as I did) it would seem like the train was coming off the tracks and heading cross-country into the unknown. Things that were unimaginable only a few years ago had somehow come to pass, calling for a re-evaluation of everything that went before. The same would happen in David’s own life when his wife died in circumstances that would until that moment have seemed to him unimaginable. The assumptions he had made about his life and his marriage – all those notions – had to be re-evaluated, and that was interesting to me.
Nothing but Blue Sky is a book about a marriage, but while traditionally novels about marriage work chronologically from the first encounter to the happy outcome, this one tells its story backwards. The end of the marriage, while shocking and by its nature finite, is in other ways only the beginning of a never-ending process for David of unravelling the woman he married and the forces at play in their relationship. As one character in the novel says, ‘we live life forwards, we learn it backwards.’ That seems to me at once the truest and saddest thing.
(c) Kathleen MacMahon
Author photograph (c) Neil MacDougald
About Nothing But Blue Sky:
Is there such a thing as a perfect marriage?
David thought so. But when his wife Mary Rose dies suddenly he has to think again. In reliving their twenty years together David sees that the ground beneath them had shifted and he simply hadn’t noticed. Or had chosen not to.
Figuring out who Mary Rose really was and the secrets that she kept – some of these hidden in plain sight – makes David wonder if he really knew her. Did he even know himself?
Nothing But Blue Sky is a precise and tender story of love in marriage – a gripping examination of what binds couples together and of what keeps them apart.
‘What a beautiful novel … Elegant, understated, subtly powerful, and rings so perfectly true’ Donal Ryan
‘Gentle and triumphant, MacMahon offers us a novel seeped in beautiful prose and poignant tenderness’ Anne Griffin
‘Sure and subtle, MacMahon holds the reader in her spell. She is a born storyteller’ Mike McCormack
Order your copy online here.