Book review: Now & Again

STANDING up for what is right is at the centre of this big novel but there’s also a strong sense of the righteous here being unhinged and unreliable. 

Charlotte Rogan

Fleet, £16.99

Of course that dubiousness about the righteous could be as a result of them being discredited. 

Those who stand up to the system being kicked around by others who are trying to maintain the status quo is a theme that could take a lot of teasing out, not least here in Ireland.

The domestic and low level professional life of Maggie Rayburn becomes politicised by her impulsive act to steal a document at a munitions factory. 

There follows a series of other actions which see her walk away from her settled life to the rock and unpredictable roll of taking a stance on all kinds of things.

That is one strand of the novel. The other begins on an Iraqi battlefield where one particular manoeuvre goes badly wrong with loss of life. 

One of the survivors is prevailed upon to lie and equivocate with his report on what happened. 

He is urged to destroy his original report. Instead he buries it. Inevitably, it comes to the surface. 

The manner in which it surfaces is via a kind of wiki-leaks of military cover-ups.

One of the strengths of the writing is the ambivalence at work where Rogan challenges the characters’ motivation for indignation, asking if it’s a matter of being an adrenaline junkie or compassionate or just being a sucker. 

One woman who’s got there before Maggie says that once you blaze over the righteous line there’s no going back.

She says you become addicted and adds, “Frankly, it is exhilarating and … it’s a lot more fun than house work or your day job.” (Will I hoover the stairs or ring Joe Duffy?) The ambivalence keeps the reader enquiring. 

Maggie seems to be formulating a reasonable critique of society but then she’s blackguarded into adopting a dog and you wonder about her soundness.

Charolotte Rogan’s structuring of her novel is highly schematic. Sections on Maggie’s life criss-cross with sections on the military/internet exposé. 

In each section there is a cast of characters, each given their moment in the narrative sun. 

In the section on Maggie’s life we also get to hear about how her husband copes with the heavy response of officialdom as Maggie’s grandstanding attracts greater heat.

We also get to see the world through the eyes of her son, Will, and his maturing and politicising as a young man to the point where he decides to enlist in the army. 

Perhaps Rogan would have increased the turn of the screw and ratcheted up the strength of her story by deploying fewer characters because we don’t just get Maggie and her husband and son, in this part of the story, we get their pastor and the pastor’s wife and the son’s girlfriend.

Similarly, in the other wing of the story on the military killing fields we get several different characters, all of them given equal billing even if their respective roles in the story may not be equally interesting. 

If anything Rogan is too democratic with her own characters.

That becomes a problem as the book which is significantly overlong progresses. 

When we want to stick with Maggie or her husband or one of the army guys we’ve got to bide our time with several other less significant players even if their narrative lines have long since run cold. 

That goes back to Rogan’s rigid schema for the book.

Rogan has an interesting and timely story to tell but sometimes the wide cast of characters dissipates the focus and indignation at the book’s core and has a scattergun effect on the novel’s undoubted energies.


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