The tide turns
Julian Vignoles on publishing his first novel at 70
Ageing is a big theme in the writing project I began during the Covid lockdown. I started my (just-published) novel, Tides Go Out thinking, ‘I may be a getting on in years, but if young people – like Sally Rooney, Eimear Ryan or Naoise Dolan – can do it, why not a senior like me? Doing it adeptly – as our flock of young, mainly women novelists have done – was the challenge. Whether I succeeded is for others to judge. Anyway, for starters, my themes are different to theirs. My characters are older, battered by life, more set in their ways too. But they’ve been there in life; like Joni Mitchell, they’ve earned their stripes, they’ve defied the advances of time.
The cognitive process is central to the novel; both in the declining brain functions of the Alzheimer’s Disease sufferer, Con, and the way memory of something in her past troubles his wife, Fiona. Both are in the 60s, raised children and had successful careers. But the past lingers around them; they keep secrets from each other – and, in a sense, from themselves.
Con is no angel, of course. He has had an affair for years with a Danish woman. Now, because of his condition, he can only remember it vaguely:
‘Looking down the Lee, something makes him recall an evening walk by the harbour in Copenhagen, a ferry to Stockholm manoeuvring close by, a ship’s horn sounding, swirling water, salt in the air, the romance of the sea calling. He was with somebody – Fiona? No, her hair was different, her aura mysterious. A lover..?’
The scene fades, and Con continues his stumble around Cork. Like me (to some extent), Con dwells in the musical past; he loves Rory Gallagher, and memories of the great guitarist’s performances can flood his damaged brain. Later, he imagines he’s Van Morrison in The Last Waltz, kicking the air with abandon, shouting ‘Turn it up!’ Remembering musical moments is something we can all revel in, and it fascinated me as I developed Con’s character. I had read enough about the disease to know about the belief that music can bring solace to a melting brain.
Fiona, Con’s wife has her own complications, and reflections that trouble her. We meet her in her local church, adding a special, secret prayer to her thoughts. Who is it for? What is the origin of her devoutness? She knows the Catholic faith that she adheres to is in decline. Yet, she looks to it for help in reconciling something from her young life. Now, she has another revelation to cope with; evidence of infidelity by her husband. When she leaves the protection of the church, she must face the cold and sleet – and her troubles.
At another point in her life, she seeks and finds a comfort memory, the day she climbed Croke Patrick with her mother:
‘Throngs of people, feet sliding on loose stones, all humanity here, some barefoot – practicing a traditional route to penance. She and her mother spoke gently to each other as they climbed, exchanging a breathless word here and there.’
Fiona is bright. She seeks answers to her husband’s health situation, she reads books about dementia, and startles Con with her questions. But for all his decline, his erratic behaviour, her confronting his Danish lover, Fiona still can’t stop loving him.
We all struggle against memory loss; we can all get tangled in a web called memory. I was attracted by the dilemmas people of a certain age have, the reflections, awkward memories that can trouble them. Issues that are often unresolved as people approach the four score years.
In Tides Go Out, fate in the end must intervene cruelly. Or so I decided as, having forsaken the TV schedule, I toiled well into many nights at my laptop. And inevitably, scenes from my own life seep into the characters’ drama. I experienced much self-doubt. I needed advice along the way, but in the end I realised I had story, a beginning, middle and end. There was enough grey matter still working up there as my 70th birthday approached.
Tides Go Out, by Julian Vignoles is published by Orpen Press.
Three copies of Tides Out Go to be won
Senior Times, in association with the publishers Orpen, are offering three copies of Tides Go Out in this competition. To enter answer this question: what is the name of the main character of the book?
Send your answers to Tides Go Out competition, Senior Times, PO Box Number 13215, Rathmines, Dublin 6. Or email to: firstname.lastname@example.org The first three correct answers drawn are the winners. Deadline for receipt of entries 20th August 2023.