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‘The endless geography of loss’ [book review]

A review of The Weight of Love by Hilary Fannin

Given its average novel size, The Weight of Love is a heavy book. Hilary Fannin’s prose reverberates with loss – a deep, haunting pain that settled into my bones as I read. In a relatively simple story about relationships gone wrong, Fannin explores the complexity of human emotion and how all too often we simply don’t know what to do with our feelings. The result is a bittersweet look at marriage, responsibility and how to face up to a past that won’t leave, with a conclusion that is pleasingly ambiguous yet still leaves room for hope.

Book cover: The Weight of Love

Ostensibly the story of a slowly fracturing marriage, The Weight of Love moves between two timeframes: London in 1995 and Dublin in 2018. The earlier story, in which our main characters are navigating the turbulent waters of their twenties, is essentially an open-ended love triangle: Robin loves Ruth who loves his friend Joseph who loves, it would seem, no one. Twenty-three years later, Robin and Ruth are married with a son, Sid, who has recently left home. The pressure of the past has come back to haunt them and once-infinitesimal cracks in their marriage have become a gaping wound that Fannin spends the rest of the novel probing. This she does with sensitivity and grace, steering well clear of any melodrama or overly romantic takes on the love-triangle model. As Anne Enright says in one of the cover quotes, ‘This is heartache for grown-ups.’

I say ‘ostensibly’ because, for me at least, this novel is far more than an exploration of romantic love. The grief that permeates the pages reached wider than that, incorporating bereavement, empty nests, homesickness and dissatisfaction in life. Sometimes it’s more nostalgic than painful – the chapters set in 1995 seem to yearn for youth, despite all its anguish, and the Irish girls living together in a Streatham flat share seem to have recreated a sense of home without ever actively mourning Ireland. At other times, especially when parent-child relationships are involved, the grief becomes almost unbearable: Ruth has never stopped mourning the loss of her father, while Robin watches his mother die whilst looking back on himself as a child who misunderstood her. Joseph takes things to another extreme altogether, portraying his dead mother in all his paintings with a level of devotion that borders on unhealthy obsession.

I found these storylines to be as important as the romantic ones – if not more so – in showing how love and loss walk the same path. I recently listened to an interview with Maggie O’Farrell, in which she said (and I’m paraphrasing here) that she finds writing about grief to be the same as writing about love, because to truly love someone you need to have a sense of how it would feel to lose them. This is an idea that Hilary Fannin seems to be exploring as well, balancing the scales that weigh love and loss against one another.

While The Weight of Love is her debut novel, Hilary Fannin is no stranger to the written word – a newspaper columnist for the Irish Times, she has also written a memoir and is best known as a playwright. Her affinity with the spoken word is clear to see in the novel’s dialogue, which is beautifully crafted and intensely real – I believed in every word the characters said. There is a slightly cinematic quality to her imagery, and she is a master at capturing small details: ‘the scent of cats and cumin’ in Robin’s mother’s house, the way that our thoughts flit from one subject to another at random, even in moments of intense distress. This particularly applies to Ruth, who has more grief and loss to deal with than almost anyone else, and whose confused inner workings and sometimes-incongruous emotions are revealed to us with great empathy.

Right from the beginning I felt drawn into the novel and its characters’ lives, which is why I found it a shame that it began to fracture towards the end. While the story is told from both Robin’s and Ruth’s points of view, a third perspective – that of Helen, a friend of the couple’s – was suddenly introduced about two-thirds of the way through, which I felt slightly muddied the waters. Helen is an interesting character whom I could also empathise with, but I had the sense that this line of the story could just as well have been told from Robin’s point of view. More than that, I’d say that Helen and her problems probably deserve their own novel. Being introduced so suddenly to her way of seeing the world was tantalising, but it did detract slightly from my personal engagement with Ruth and Robin.

Fannin doesn’t end The Weight of Love on a terribly optimistic note, but as a fan of the ambiguous ending I was more than pleased with that. An assured debut that makes beautiful use of words to dig deep into emotional ground, I look forward to seeing what she turns her hand to next.


4 thoughts on “‘The endless geography of loss’ [book review]

  1. what a lovely review! im so glad you enjoyed this ☺ i have an eARC of it from netgalley that ive been meaning to read for a while, so your praise of it is very encouraging!

    Liked by 1 person

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