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  • Ageing in Irish Writing: Strangers to Themselves by Heather Ingman
  • Yue Jianfeng (bio)
Ageing in Irish Writing: Strangers to Themselves. By Heather Ingman. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. Ix + 209 pp. Hardcover $74.36.

This book examines aging in Irish context with a focus on the dynamics of identities and potentials of self-realization in the process of aging. The experience of aging is not merely, as the author points out from the beginning, sociologically “positive-negative polarities” (4), but embodies more complexity and nuance if we explore the issue in literature works, which display diversified individual experiences. This is an important distinction because the aging experience varies with individuality and it is influenced by factors such as gender, education, and culture.

The book begins with a comprehensive and excellent introduction that frames the discussion in the fields of sociology and literature. The author has done extensive research and combs through the past studies on the subject that explains the complexity and the challenge of the topic at hand. She begins with a chorological summary of the sociological theories of gerontology that is both succinct and yet featuring polarizing and unbalanced in gender, as the consequence of rich body of work produced by the second wave of feminist movement. The introduction then takes on a survey on literary theories of gerontology, which not only makes aging an eligible category in current literature, but also raises challenge to stereotyped understanding of aging in literature, representatives are derivation of Freud’s psychoanalysis and Said’s connecting late-stage writing with transcendence. The summary hints the potential of the subject and proves the necessity of redressing sexual balance of the theme.

The book confines its examination to the context of Irish literature, which is not a random choice, but a particular social context “providing a bridge between humanistic gerontology . . . and political forces” (13). The author goes on to suggest that Irish political strategy, demographic research, and media spotlight in the past decades have gradually transferred emphasis from “the third age” (early old age, 50–65) to “the fourth age” (truly old age, 65 and above), to put it in another way, from positive aging to frail aging. These sufficiently conducted background researches in aging in Ireland, once again, have focused our attention on the unique individual experience of aging, meanwhile hinting great potential of probing the subject Irish literature. In spite of the rich body of Irish writings dealing with aging and its full-ranged influence on characters, there is a sheer lack of critical scholarship. Underlining subjectivity and fragility of aging experience, Ingman carefully shows that aging, as a literary theme, has not been fully explored as it is here.

Ingman breaks her argument into six substantive chapters. Chapter 2 tackles aging and aesthetics initiated by time, surveying Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey (1891), W. B. Yeats’s late poetry and Elizabeth Bowen’s The Little Girls (1964). Ingman reads this narrative tendency of freezing time [End Page 182] with art as exemplary of the aesthetics of aging. The subsequent chapter pursues narration of aging as writers’ challenge to this unavoidable route of life. Ingman, on the one hand, proves the reliability of Waxman’s genre of Reifungsromane, on the other hand, redresses the gender unbalance with evenly distributed male and female characters, including Molly Keane from Time After Time (1983), Deirdre Madden from Authenticity (2002), and Anne Enright from The Green Road (2015). Chapter 4 discusses conflicts between individual and community in the process of aging. Cases explored here include Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, the Sea (1978), John Banville’s The Sea (2005), and John McGahern’s The Barracks (1963). Juxtaposing solitary aging with socially aging experience, Ingman challenges the feasibility of gerontologists’ theory on sustained transcendence. Chapter 5 aims to explore complexity and richness of the theme aging in Irish short stories. Ingman discusses a variety of cases ranging from the interrelations between physical decrepitude and moral degradation (Liam O’Flaherty), psychological confusion of rapid changes (Daniel Corkery), capacity of art in reflecting memory (Michael McLaverty), intergenerational bonds between cosmopolitan daughters and insular mothers (McGahern), to self-confession of demented elders (William Trevor). Chapter 6...