Author Catherine Dunne talks to Shelley Marsden about suicide and her book which explores the taboo subject
ACCLAIMED Irish author Catherine Dunne is in Certaldo Alto in Tuscany next month to pick up this year’s Giovanni Boccaccio International Prize for Fiction. It’s for her ninth novel, The Things We Know Now.
She is for this reason boning up on the Renaissance writer it is named after: “I’m currently reading The Decameron! It’s about 700 pages long; I hope to have it finished by the ceremony on September 14! The only thing is, I can’t carry it on the bus, it’s too damn heavy.”
Published in March, Dunne’s latest novel tackles the delicate subject of a son’s suicide, and his parents’ subsequent re-evaluation of their privileged lives. Principally, it is about one family’s reaction when the unthinkable happens. It’s this ‘theatre of the family’ that Dunne excels at, putting relationships under stress and finding out where the fault-lines are.
Topical as it is, however, she wasn’t responding to the latest headlines: “It was spooky; when I started this book there was very little about the toxic effect of cyber bullying. It was after it was written and delivered that it became a hot topic – so I had the extraordinary sensation of writing about something which was happening contemporaneously, but I had no knowledge of it – a ghostly parallel.”
Dunne, a former teacher with her own experience of adolescent angst, did copious research, but admits she still found it hard to imagine, as a parent, what it must be like to find out, as Patrick and Ella do in the book with their ‘golden boy’ Daniel, that to save you from distress your child has been living a completely secret life.
The gulf between parents and children is nothing new though. Dunne agrees: “The adolescent responsibility is to separate themselves from their parents and become an independent adult. We all hid things from our parents. The problem now is that it becomes easier to keep a greater range and depth of secrets than perhaps we used to.
“I’m not interested in scare-mongering, either. I taught for many years and in terms of what I’ve observed, most adolescents will navigate those troubled waters of adolescence and social media with no ill effects. There is, however, a group of very vulnerable young people that need to be protected.”
The author deliberately places this horrific fact, the suicide at the beginning, she says, to make sure it was not trivialised by making it a ‘Will he, won’t he?’ “I’m much more interested in the why; it meant I had to spend the remainder of the book responding to that event in what I hope is a responsible and sensitive way”.
Dunne’s book explores the dark matter of suicide in young people, which she calls one of the “huge, unspoken social plagues” in Ireland. But her story began as a simple visual of a young boy peddling furiously towards home: “I didn’t know what I happened, I just knew he was bent on self-destruction. When an image comes to you, you go where it takes you.”
For the full interview, see this week’s Irish World newspaper (issue 17 August 2013).
The Things We Know Now (Pan Macmillan) is out now. See www.catherinedunneauthor.com.