Book review: The Judge’s Wife

A LOVE story hovering between the Philomena territory of Ireland in the 1950s and the perhaps more enlightened 1980s is told with skilful ease by Ann O’Loughlin who is likely to have an easy-reading hit on her hands after the great success of her debut, The Ballroom Café.

Ann O’Loughlin

Black & White, €9.30

Using irrevocably sad material the sentimental register is set close to 10 as the reader is guided between a loveless marriage, a passionate love affair that was damned by the strictures of society, an archetypically cruel aunt, and the possibility of some kind of resolution against an Indian sunset in Bangalore.

O’Loughlin doesn’t try to re-invent the wheel in literary terms but she applies herself with lyrical zest to the tropes of romantic fiction.

Grace Moran is a young Irish woman of the 1950s married to a much older man, a High Court judge, and there is some style to their life on Parnell Square and she cuts quite a dash in fine-cut clothing described here in loving detail.

Fabled Irish haute couture designer Sybil Connolly is namechecked so frequently it seemed like she was going to play a part in the story at some stage. 

What O’Loughlin is keen to do is give us pen pictures of the style of Dublin’s high society down to the fabric of the couture and it may also signal the female constituency the writer is targeting.

While Aunt Violet is an irredeemable tyrant who casts a long shadow over the lives of those in her extended family, some of the women working in an asylum which is central to the story, are straight from the Nurse Ratched school of institutional care.

However, O’Loughlin digs deeper to explore the more tangled knots tying down the wider dramatis personae of her drama and she fleshes them out with compassion.

Grace is our heroin, a flighty and beautiful romantic tethered to a lugubrious old judge in an arranged marriage. She meets the object of her desires, Vikram, a dashing Indian doctor working at a Dublin hospital. 

Theirs is a love that is colour-blind and star-crossed but one that brings down the wrath of an unforgiving community. It is the classic meat and potatoes of romantic fiction told in softly lyrical buttoned-down prose.

Early in the narrative we learn that Grace who becomes pregnant by Vikram is banished to the asylum and their affair is thwarted. The book is framed by one central device, the death of the judge.

Daughter, Emma, returns from a failed marriage of her own to sort out his estate. So we have various characters stepping out of the past to tell Emma stuff she never knew about her father and mother.

This gives the writer the device she needs to drip feed the information and let the plot develop through these sustained accretions. 

She builds the pace further with the reading of the will. And as if this is not enough, the judge has left a series of letters to the key people in the story.

While O’Loughlin’s ingredients are the many deeply embedded prejudices and cruelties of mid-century Ireland she is hard-nosed enough about the exigencies of her genre not to drift entirely into pious elegy and wistfulness.

Instead, she opens the throttles and guns it for full metal melodrama with two huge revelations towards the end, one that is far-fetched and the second that is to say the least, audacious, but they’re designed to keep the readers happily rewarded in what is a strong shot of mainstream entertainment.

As ever, the pact for the reader is to take this elegiac journey and after all of the sad stuff there might just be a happily ever after.


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