Friday, October 31, 2008


When you buy a used book you hold an object with a history you will never know. How many people have held and read this book before you, and what was going on in their lives as they read it? I asked myself those questions when I opened a used copy of The All of It by Jeannette Haien. Here's the inscription I found on the inside cover: “Hannilie – This is a quince of a book – one of a kind like Isak Dinesen's. I hope the hurting has stopped & that you can savour this timeout. Pick”. Wow! First of all, what kind of names are Hannilie and Pick? How can a book be like a quince? And was Hannilie hurting because Pick had just dumped her (euphemistically known as a “timeout”), or was she taking time off from work to recover from foot surgery and her loyal friend Pick was providing her with reading material? And did she in fact “savour” this book?

Well... she might have. This slim volume (145 pages) is really a long short story. And 'story' is definitely the right word for it, since the bulk of the book is the story that widow Enda Dennehy tells Father Declan as they sit by the body of her late husband Kevin in the remote village of Roonatellin on the western coast of Ireland, where the couple has lived for over 50 years. Except that Kevin is not her husband. He has revealed this secret to the priest on his deathbed, but it is left to Enda to tell “the all of it” as they sit through a long afternoon waiting for mourners to arrive. Bracketing Enda's story is another one that at first seems unrelated. Father Declan is attempting to catch a fish. It's a cold rainy day, the midges are biting, and the priest is using every lure in his arsenal to try to land a salmon. His reverie as he fishes leads us into Enda and Kevin's story, and near the book's end we are returned to the priest on the riverbank. He struggles to balance his sympathy for Enda with his need to condemn her sin.

Haien's style is subtle and elegant. She asks hard questions about what it means to lead a moral life, and about what compromises life can impose. There is also much humor in the book, and beautiful descriptions of rugged coast of County Mayo. I don't know what “hurting' Hannilie was hoping to escape, but I think this book has the subtle power to distract her from pains, whether physical or emotional.

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