Kate O'Brien's first novel, Without My Cloak, is a multi-generation family saga, set in the fictional Irish town of Mellick (Limerick) in the second half of the nineteenth century. The Considines are a wealthy, close-knit family whose fortune was made by the family patriarch, "Honest John" Considine, who established a successful firm of forage merchants in Mellick. Shortly after the novel opens, Honest John prepares to pass the reins of Considine's to his youngest son, Anthony Considine. Anthony is a savvy, status-conscious businessman whose one weakness is his indulgent love for his eldest son, Denis. Much of the novel chronicles the coming-of-age of the appealing and eccentric Denis, who dreams of a life much different from the one his father envisions for him in the family business.
The Irish novelist Maeve Binchy said, "Reading Without My Cloak was the first time I realised how powerful the small ordinary family life story can be."
Without My Cloak is the fourth of Kate O'Brien's novels I've read this year, beginning with the incomparable The Land of Spices. It's an enjoyable, and in many ways conventional novel, but already the characteristic themes of O'Brien's later novels are apparent. Denis experiences (as does his cousin Agnes in the book's sequel, The Ante-Room) the difficult push and pull of his Catholic faith, which comes to a head in a dramatic conflict with his uncle, Father Tom, the parish priest. The cold demands of religion often seem at odds with the warm impulses of humanity. At the same time, the traditions of the Church are inexplicably important to him:
He went to Mass. That was true, but nevertheless his church had gradually become to him no more than a set of symbols for the unexplainable, a fantastic and half-satisfying dramatisation of an unquiet legend in the heart. He went to Mass because his sensuous imagination found rest there, because something in his blood responded to the ancient prayers and mysteries while his mind remained detached from them, and because he could not insult in his own people and ancient necessity which he understood. He went to Mass, not because he believed in it, but because he believed inthe impenetrable mystery of life and felt that mystery heightened and enlarged in his own breast by such phrases as Quoniam tu solus sanctus, tu solus altissimus—benedictus qui venit in nomine Domine—sanctus, sanctus, sanctus—Agnus dei, qui tollis peccata mundi...The Church is a symbol of something inward, in his heart, but also of an inviolable tradition. But more even than the Church, Denis's family holds him with the inescapable bonds into which he was born, bonds of tradition and affection, a proud and envious attachment that friction sometimes sparks into hatred.
Families, as O'Brien well knows, often present us with ourselves in the guise of someone else. We see our faults reflected in fathers, our hopes embodied in sons, our own prides and passions flaring up in other hearts. Sometimes, we feel so close to another heart, only to realize the impassable gulf between us. Early in the novel, Eddie and Caroline Considine, the two of Honest John's children who have always been closest, are walking together by the river. Caroline says, "I wonder what it's like to be you?" So close, and yet so distant from each other's interior experience. Later in the novel, as Denis tries to understand why his favorite cousin, Tony, is planning to enter a monastery, Tony says, "If you were in me, you'd see."
Sometimes those who are closest end up the furthest apart. Sometimes, too, loyalty to one's inner self comes into conflict with loyalty to others. Near the end of the book, Denis cries out in his heart to his father: "Why did you make two people of me like this?"
Despite its conventional trimmings as a multi-generational family saga, Without My Cloak is a penetrating exploration of the intimate alienation of family life. O'Brien also asks what could could induce a person to give up what he or she wants most out of life. What has a greater claim upon us than our own dreams and desires?