Mia Gallagher’s Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland is a voluminous book, sprawling and ambitious. It is also confusing, absorbing, digressive and endlessly surprising. It is a Dublin novel that opens on the London Underground: ‘…Mind the Gap, calls a clipped voice. At the ferryman’s command, some of us scatter, dispersing in different directions; others stay put; the rest clamber on, swarming into the gaps left by the displaced.’ These are the final moments before a bomb explodes, and in this passage an ominous tone is building which will quickly become familiar. The explosion on the Underground is just one of the violent disruptions that ripple throughout the story: some physical, others psychological.
The opening image of a splintering crowd – some stepping into a Tube carriage, others dispersing, ‘swarming into the gaps left by the displaced’ – resonates with the structure of this very original novel. Beautiful Pictures divides its narrative between four characters: two tell their stories in 1970s Dublin and two in the present day. The connections between these stories are not immediately obvious to the reader, only slowly unveiling themselves. What is clear is that each character seems somehow displaced, as if home is always out of reach.
David Madden is a modernizing architect in 1970s Dublin and a man caught up in his own concerns – dealing with the impact of his wife’s illness and his awkward disconnection from his son. But David’s disaffection has even deeper roots: it is hinted that the troubled country home he has left behind is one reason for his uncertain and distant manner. This is a man who has been steadily remaking his identity all his adult life. But while, for David, family was once something to escape, there is a slow tragedy developing in the increasingly fractured relationships within his young family.
A different perspective on the Maddens’ situation is provided by Lotte, an enigmatic young English woman who has somehow washed up in bedsit Dublin. Initially employed as a cleaner once David’s wife becomes ill, Lotte develops a curious intimacy with the Madden family. But while her story becomes closely entwined with theirs, she remains oddly separate – almost disengaged. Each of the Maddens identifies in some way with Lotte, but she is largely an enigma to them. What they cannot see is that she is flying from the kind of grief that David and his family are just beginning to experience.
The third strand in the novel is set in present-day Aberystwyth. Anna Bauer, an elderly German woman, is telling an interviewer about her journey from the Sudetenland to a new life in Bristol. Expelled from the Sudetenland in the aftermath of the Second World War, she has spent her adult life in exile from family and home. It is a situation that has resonance for many other characters in this novel, however different their circumstances:
For others maybe, it is strange to leave a home and to leave another home and another…. But for me, there is only one home to leave, the first. Everything else is replacing it, ersatz, like instant coffee. There are so many journeys it is hard to remember. I think sometimes, as I remember, I am making like a jigsaw puzzle. Mia Gallagher, Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland
That pattern of departures runs throughout Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland. It is seen again and again: in Lotte’s story, in David’s, and in that of his only child, Georgie. And this novel is its own jigsaw puzzle too – a collection of interconnected fragments which demands the reader’s close attention to make it whole.
The fourth story, told in the present, concerns Georgie. Like Anna Bauer, Georgie is literally telling her story: recording an audio letter for her estranged father, who is now living in America. Tellingly, the first glimpse of the adult Georgie – now Georgia – shows her remembering preparing ‘for one of our panicked moves, from Berlin to Lausanne.’ She seems always to be between places, and much of her story will focus on the first home that was lost: the period in the 1970s when the Madden family began to fall apart.
Georgie is a lonely, awkward child – and a child with secrets. It is perhaps an effect of Gallagher’s teasing, elusive narrative style that she can create characters like this who seem intimately known and yet still retain the dignity of mystery. The adults around Georgie also have their own secrets, as if shielding their lives and their identities from one another. These can be hidden from the reader too. It takes time to realise that Georgia is a transitioned woman who refers to her childhood self as ‘she’; in David and Lotte’s narratives the same child, Georgie, is ‘he’. However it is implied that Lotte ‘sees’ Georgie in a way that others do not. It will transpire that Lotte understands grief, and like Georgie she also understands the complications of identity. But this is a book of delayed revelations, a technique which creates suspense as well as some confusion.
Georgia’s audio letter, for example, has been prompted by an unexpected gift from David, the significance of which only becomes clear quite late in the novel. Similarly, it takes time to realise why these sections are headed with timings (‘09.32.16-13.18.58’), or why Georgia is recording in this way. But this teasing technique is also one of the novel’s strengths. Beautiful Pictures of a Lost Homeland has an imaginative richness that dares its reader to lose herself within it – and find her way again. Clues and echoes pepper the novel. On hearing of the Underground bombing in London, for example, Georgia is tormented with the memory of something that she can’t quite place:
I thought again of Farringdon, the station where the bomb had gone off, and Turnmill Street, the road it belonged to. The names were tugging at me, like individual features belonging to a face I used to know, that were refusing to come together as a whole. They say the human brain remembers every single thing the eyes register, like those baroque princes who used collect oddments for their cabinets of curiosities, but we let ourselves forget because otherwise, we’d go mad.
It takes another three hundred pages or so for that nagging memory to make sense. But as Georgia observes, forgetting is necessary, otherwise the chaos of memory – a stream of relentless information – would send us mad. At the same time, this novel captures some of that chaotic overload, and not only in the four stories that veer between past and present. These narratives are filled with things half remembered and secrets that slowly unravel. Their suggestiveness is amplified in a fifth, very different, strand: a peculiar Wunderkammer.
The idea of the cabinet of curiosities that Georgia mentions is the basis for perhaps the strangest element of this novel. As Georgia, David, Lotte and Anna’s stories move back and forth between suburban Dublin and post-war Bristol, they are punctuated by a series of ‘Lognotes’: a virtual Wunderkammer illustrating the complex political histories and identities of the Sudetenland. It does so through exploding maps, absurd footnotes, and a hyper-metanarrative – or a meta-hypernarrative – which can dissolve into figures, symbols, lists, inventories and irreproducible characters (like the bomb illustration below):
Warning: When approaching the flashing red button labelled ‘June 1914’, visitors are advised to wear waterproof clothing and insert ear plugs. Pushing the button is done at your own risk since it will result in being splattered with an Archduke’s grey matter [bomb illustration] (! aler- [cognition-flash: Was that a bomb? [circuit self-destructs]- to the acM☐mpaniment of – (!!! /alert! high-alert!! / - move on as fast as you can, visitors! – a deafening mash-up of Franz Ferdinand’s ‘Take Me Out’ and U2’s ‘Miss Sarajevo.’
The Wunderkammer can be clever and wry; it suggestively plays on the parallels between the contested political and cultural claims in the Sudetenland and the complexities of Irish colonial history (not irrelevant to this story, as the Troubles impinge on Georgie’s childhood). These sections are difficult to describe; at best they give the impression of a vast kaleidoscope. With multivocal and self-referential elements, with footnotes, maps and shadow-plays, they do not marshal arguments so much as shake them together as if to see what new historical patterns might emerge. A footnote to the appearance of the First World War in this historical narrative asks who benefits, ‘economically and politically, from wars? By which we mean all wars, including ones on ‘Terror’?’ For a moment the reader might be cast back to that opening scene of impending catastrophe on the Tube. But how does this contemporary intrusion relate to Anna Bauer’s situation as a German deported from the Sudetenland? And are the complicated identity politics explored in the Wunderkammer somehow relevant to Georgia’s situation as a trans woman? Does it make sense to look back and forth for parallels and echoes, or is it absurd to do so – as the Wunderkammer seems to imply?
A prominent element of these sections is a wry attention to multiple historical perspectives. The Wunderkammer mimics a hectic, multimedia exhibit in which the visitor is invited to approach a subject from all possible sides, and maybe from any side at all. In that sense, it seems to satirize the determined relativism of a postmodern culture. But these ‘Lognotes’ also give the impression of a swarm of ideas that refuse to coalesce – deliberately perhaps, but also confusingly. They are inventive and amusing, but they can also be tedious at long stretches, and sometimes they feel like a distraction from the more interesting stories around them.
While Gallagher’s Dublin is irredeemably drab, for instance, it is also incredibly vivid: ‘Merrion Square is gloomy; the evergreen sessile oaks dripping under the rain, Government Buildings making a weak attempt at bravado as it shoves its one grubby tit at the unappreciative sky.’ And while her characters are isolated and enigmatic souls, they are shown with a delicate intimacy. In one of the most absorbing sections of the novel, Georgie begins to explore her independence – and create her own childish world – in the lane behind the Maddens’ house. In tracking her friendship with Elaine, a girl Georgie finds there, the story becomes increasingly gothic and fantastical, and strangely compelling. The story built around this friendship brilliantly communicates the thrill, necessity and terror for Georgie of exploring the person she might be.
Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland is a capacious book. It is a novel that is difficult to capture all at once, and as such it is one that needs returning to. As the playful Wunderkammer might suggest, it is also a novel that might appear very differently on each reading. There are curious and suggestive features throughout: it can hardly go unnoticed, for example, that this story of fractured and fluid identities is filled with twins. Lotte is a twin; so is Anna Bauer; so too, perhaps, is Georgie/ Georgia. And all this twinning is echoed in the political and cultural identities associated with the Sudetenland – a place at once Czech and German.
But on one level, this is simply a novel about grief – about the disruption that death, loneliness and separation can create in a family. In that alone, it is a sensitive and absorbing piece of work. But Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland is also a novel about fractured identities, personal and political, and about lost homes and lost homelands. The nucleus of its story is small, but the scope of this novel is vast.
This review was first published in The Dublin Review of Books.