Have you ever read a book about a sensational event that isn’t sensational itself? That manages to transcend the shocking element to reveal a much more interesting and nuanced story, which then helps you begin to comprehend, even if not accept, the things that happen in extraordinary circumstances?
The All of It, by Jeannette Haien, does exactly this, which accounts for part of its beauty. The rest of its beauty lies in the incredibly authentic tone, descriptions, and most of all dialogue, which together paint a vivid picture of the bucolic, coastal Irish town of Roonatellin and some of its very ordinary residents.
This slim 145-page book starts off with the death of a major character, Kevin Dennehy. His wife, Enda Dennehy, has called upon the town’s priest and longtime acquaintance, Father Declan de Loughry, to deliver the last sacrament during Kevin’s final moments. The rest of the book focuses on the days that follow Kevin’s death where Enda draws Father into her telling of the true story behind herself and Kevin before their arrival in Roonatellin almost five decades ago. Early into the telling Enda reveals a very unsettling secret that bowls over the Father and the reader. The Father is pulled out of his comfort zone and put into a quandary of whether to fulfill his role as a priest, standing a step above complex human relationships, and his desire to be a friend, risking getting swept up in Enda’s circumstances and blurring the lines of priestly propriety.
The dialogue between Enda and Father is riveting, not because of the content so much as Haien’s ear for the conventions of Irish speech. Having never been to Ireland, I still felt like I had traveled there. But instead of visiting the typical tourist destinations, I had been given special access to Roonatellin, this small coastal town outside of the global glare, where time has not stood still but definitely moves more slowly. I was introduced to characters who remain committed to the old way of life. I felt like I had pulled up a stool by the fire and was listening in on Enda, who, after a lifetime, was finally revealing to another soul “the all of it,” her true life story. I would say that two-thirds of the book is exactly that, Enda telling Father her story, so this book is particularly enjoyable to those who love beautiful dialogue or love when a character plays the role of storyteller.
This book is so artful in its counterbalance. It offers up a jarring, hard-to-accept event but counterbalances this with poignant descriptions of affable, admirable, ordinary people. Similarly, while so much of the book is dedicated to Enda’s storytelling, which takes place in her cottage, much of the remainder of the book focuses on the natural beauty of Roonatellin, most of all its rivers, where Father and other town residents spend hours fly fishing.
I was gifted The All Of It by the writer, Simon Van Booy, whom I hold in high esteem. Having read both his short story collections, The Secret Lives of People in Love and Love Begins In Winter, I think he is so masterful at crafting the most exquisite short stories, where the characters, settings, plots and the prose all vie constantly for your attention. I’m thankful to him for introducing me to this slice of a novel. Its faithful characters and dialogue manage to ground you in its story even as you are reeling from its most sensational element. I feel initiated into a literary club of sorts because in the new edition of the book, Ann Patchett writes the introduction. In it, Patchett reveals that she had never heard of The All Of It or its author, Jeannette Haien, but was given it as a gift by Maile Meloy, a fellow writer who thrust it into her hands in a secondhand bookstore. And she fell in love with it. I’m not surprised because Ann Patchett herself, in Bel Canto, wrote about the human-scale stories that lie behind shockingly epic events such as a paramilitary coup at an embassy in South America.
So, as a newly inducted member into this club, I feel compelled to let people know about this gem of a book. It transports you across oceans and time and into the lives of a few ordinary people living in a picturesque Irish town whose beauty belies the grim and extraordinary circumstances they’re trying to cope with. But I also feel the need to actually press my copy of the book into a fellow writer’s hands, exclaiming, “you must read this.” But I have to confess, I’m not quite ready to part with it yet—perhaps after one more reading.