An Irish family enlivened by a linguistic acrobat

The Banyan tree By Christopher Nolan Arcade 374 pp., $25.95

It was obviously fraudulent.

What else could explain the stunning autobiography supposedly written by an escaped slave named Frederick Douglass in 1845? Southerners pointed to the book's clear style and sophisticated imagery as evidence that this was the work of some clever abolitionist spinning out incendiary propaganda. No African slave could be that articulate.

Au contraire, Douglass must have mused.

Ten years later, he published a revised version of his "Narrative" called "My Bondage and My Freedom." Considerably longer, it was so packed with erudition, research, and classical references that Douglass inflamed the accusations against him. He shot back, "God Almighty made but one race."

His bondage is physical rather than political, but Irish writer Christopher Nolan has now challenged the world in much the same way. Born with cerebral palsy, Nolan is unable to speak or move. But using a stick strapped to his forehead, he managed to peck out a striking collection of poems called "Dam-Burst of Dreams" when he was 14. A few narrow-minded critics muttered that his mother must have directed the pointer when she held his head over the keyboard.

Seven years later, Nolan published his bestselling autobiography, "Under the Eye of the Clock." He won Britain's Whitbread Prize, and critics compared it favorably to the work of James Joyce. But a contributor to The Sunday Times (London) lamented that the severely handicapped author would never be able to write fiction.

"I'll show him," Nolan writes in his brief preface to "The Banyan Tree." "It's thanks to him that my novel has seen the light and for that I'll be ever grateful - he did me a great service."

And now Nolan has done us one. Nothing can match the unique voice and perspective of "Under the Eye of the Clock" - recently brought back into print by Arcade - but this new novel is the work of a mature genius.

"The Banyan Tree" tells the long life of Minnie O'Brien, an Irish farm woman born in the early years of the 20th century. She is not poor. She is not unhappy. Her husband is not an alcoholic. She is not a bitter mother. Her children do not die. She does not hate the Catholic Church. She does not commit assassinations for (or against) the IRA.

Can you imagine anything more revolutionary in an Irish novel? And yet the book is unflaggingly engaging, largely because of Nolan's rebellious style. Everything in this charming story simmers with life. Forgotten items in dresser drawers "rub shoulders." The grandfather clock laughs. "The road gate feared for its owner. The wicket gate waited." "The hell of a lawn on either side guffawed. Here and there the grand guards of mushroom-shaped chestnut trees growled as they stood there, adept at their waiting game." This is an author who could quicken a stone.

Drumhollow, Ireland, "consisted of a single street, a great burly nothingness of a street," Nolan writes. "The world passed through it without bothering to give it a glance. To the inhabitants themselves, though, the village was a metropolis." Indeed, that's Nolan's attitude about each life, too.

Looking for a mousetrap, Peter O'Brien is caught when he spots young Minnie in her father's store. "In a medley of stalactites the things of her shop hung from the boarded ceiling, all types of gadgets swinging their legs in watchfulness." He immediately knows this clever girl is for him. "She would try to sell gunsmoke rather than miss a sale."

At first, "Minnie and Peter almost tripped each other up in their anxiety to act normal," but their love quickly relaxes them both. Minnie eventually raises three children through the usual trials and joys. More than 100 short chapters celebrate the common details of starting a home, tending animals, cutting peat in the bog, winning a hurling victory, bickering with neighbors, enduring the departure of children. This is the rapture of ordinary life rendered in language that's unfettered even by the rules of grammar. Quirky constructions and neologisms catch the eye in these paragraphs like chunks of quartz in a creek bed.

In the end, Minnie won't abandon her house or her hopes for a wandering son, despite the well-meaning pleas of her other wealthy, responsible children. She's rooted there, tied by the strong fibers of the banyan tree to a place of simple beauty and intricate memories. Readers of this book will be equally captured.

*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to charlesr@csps.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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