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  • Deirdre Madden’s One by One in the Darkness (1996): Impossible Reconciliation?
  • Travis Snyder

The BBC’s coverage of the Enniskillen bombing that occurred on Remembrance Day, 1987, highlighted Gordon Wilson, the father of a victim. On the day of the bombing—that is, on the day of his daughter’s death—Wilson declared that he bore “no ill will” to those who planned the attack, and stated that he forgave the perpetrators.1 Years later, a column in the local Enniskillen paper, the Impartial Reporter, asked,

How could you forgive them? I thought. I can’t forgive the people who terrorised me. To be honest I did not believe him, could not believe him, and did not believe it was humanly possible to forgive someone for killing your daughter. The only thing that had kept me going over the years was the fact that the people who forced me out of my home and country would never have my forgiveness. . . .2

Such stories as Wilson’s, often seized upon by the news media in the wake of tragedy, force us to reflect and ask, Is terrorism truly forgivable?

Deirdre Madden’s 1996 novel One by One in the Darkness demonstrates the impossibility of pure forgiveness in the circumstances of Northern Ireland.3 At the same time it is in this impossibility of pure forgiveness that, pried open and writ large, can also offer a vision of reconciliation. Jacques Derrida, in On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness (2001), argues that forgiveness must be incomprehensible to law, politics, and morality; forgiveness, he says, is an act that exists entirely in an inaccessible zone and that is perfect to the context that created it. At various points in One by One in the Darkness, the members of the Quinn family—sisters seeking to understand their father’s murder—do, in fact refuse [End Page 143] individual acts of forgiveness. Yet, the novel ultimately signals to a broader possible horizon of forgiveness.

Elmer Kennedy-Andrews, in his comprehensive 2003 study Fiction and the Northern Ireland Troubles Since 1969 identifies Madden in the postmodern tradition and interprets One by One in the Darkness as a trauma narrative—a reaction, it seems, to other critics who disliked the novel’s vagueness in its reference to its rendering of the public Northern Irish world.4 The political-public event, Kennedy-Andrews points out, is repressed for much of the text; the murder at the novel’s core is not depicted until the final pages. The reader instead reconstructs this core absence as it comes to be relayed quietly in the domestic plotting of the novel, with vagueness giving way slowly to unbearable clarity. The public and private, external and internal, political and familial grow linked paradoxically in Northern Ireland, a place that one critic has described as a strange “spectral borderland,” where violence is “’guaranteed’ by political history.”5 External violence and history create the personal acts. It is all inseparable, borders and violence.

In addition to her preoccupation with the link between public and private, Madden foregrounds the tragedy of, as Michael Parker puts it, “the violence of misrepresentation.”6 The murdered father, Charlie Quinn, has always avoided partisanship, and is not the target of the attack that kills him. Rather, he is merely having tea at the home of his brother, the actual target. Parker’s analysis of One by One appears in a chapter titled “Struggling Towards Closure,” and indeed, that struggle for closure is very much a concern of Madden’s. Her novel allows us to consider the circumstances of Northern Ireland is one of collapsing distinctions between public and personal. She presents the story of the Quinn family and the impossibility of forgiveness in their specific circumstance of living in a world of blurred lines

One by One in the Darness weaves two alternating threads of plot in two sets of chapters. The first set concerns Cate Quinn’s visit home. Cate, who lives in London, is returning home to her mother, Emily, and her sisters, Helen and Sally. She is pregnant and wants to share the news, but is nervous to do so, as she is unmarried. The chapters that follow this...


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pp. 143-159
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