An interesting book, falling short of greatness for me.
I started reading this book with high expectations – interesting setting, highly praised on GoodReads. I really expected to love this book but it was not to be, unfortunately.
Maurice Hannigan, 84, sits in an old hotel at the bar and drinks to the people he loved most and who all have passed away before him, telling us about his relationship with them and, consequently, about his life. The son of an Irish farmer, he, too, sets out on this path and soon by far surpasses his parents and becomes a wealthy and well-respected man.
We learn about the Dollards, formerly major land owners and employing Maurice’s mother and himself, whom he loved to hate for his entire life. He toasts to his brother Tony who died as a young man, his first child, Molly, his sister-in-law Noreen, his son, Kevin, a well-known journalist who has emigrated to the USA and, last but not least, his wife Sadie.
Griffin tells her story, Maurice’s life, in long chapters most of which overlap with each other in narrated time. This gives her room to explore each relationship deeply and allows for concentrating on their respective unique aspects. Unfortunately, the overlap does cause some conflicts that are hard to handle gracefully. Let me give you an actual example:
“It was twenty-seven years later that I learned the origin of the coin from Emily at that special dinner she’d arranged. But even then she’d been holding back. And it wasn’t until a year after that again that I found out the real consequence of its theft. And it was all because of Noreen, would you believe.”
I’m calling this, well, clumsy. You might consider it a narrative device, I don’t like it, sorry.
In between each of those toasts we’re getting a small glimpse into the current time and Maurice’s state of mind which is – at the very least – bordering on depression. By his own admission, Maurice is sleeping very badly (“I’ve stopped sleeping, have I told you? Two hours, three if I’m lucky now and then I’m awake.”), feeling bad and guilty as well as being prone to pondering (“Staring at the ceiling, going over it again, this bloody decision”). He’s tired and pretty much hopeless (“I feel tired and, if I’m honest, afraid.”) – all clinical symptoms of a depression.
Maurice even has people worrying about him (e. g. David, a social worker; Emily, the hotel’s owner; Robert, his notary) but none of them seem to recognise that and help him.
Griffin ends the book as anyone past the first chapter will know – “when all is said”, Maurice tries to take his own life. I’m sure Griffin doesn’t want to “promote” suicide as a way out of acute grief but a bestselling book ending like that does make me feel uncomfortable.
Putting that thought aside, I still didn’t really warm to the book. I can’t even put my finger on the exact reasons: Griffin’s language is believable (if restricted to Maurice’s vocabulary) and vivid. The story itself is plausible – everything in Maurice’s life could have happened just like it is told. Maybe that’s in fact part of my problem with the book – I felt myself nodding and registering the narrated facts but I was rarely touched by the story.
There were a few passages that really gripped me, especially since I’m a father and, obviously, a son myself (“fathers have a lot to answer for”), and made me swallow, e. g. this passage:
“But no, I mean, sorry for the father I’ve been. I know, really I do, that I could’ve been better. That I could’ve listened more, that I could’ve accepted you and all you’ve become with a little more grace.”
Boy, can I relate to that…
Unfortunately, this emotional engagement remains the exception for me in this book. Too rare and, in the end, too late.
To be able to really love a book, it needs to strike a chord within myself. I’m not an analytic reader, you won’t catch me scientifically dissect a book. The books I’ve loved most so far are those that make me enthuse about them to my wife and children till they send me somewhere else (or leave themselves). There are books (you can find them in my “Favourites” shelf on GoodReads) that make my soul thrive and rejoice (or only mentioning their names brings tears to my eyes) and I cannot help but sing their praise.
I fully expected “When All Is Said” to be such a book but it felt too shallow, it never engaged me emotionally and, quite possibly, maybe it’s all me, myself and I who’s to blame for that.