Long time no see, indeed: Healy’s first novel in a decade is ‘mesmerising’

Long Time, No See

Dermot Healy

Faber, €17.15;

adobe ebook, €12.55

Review: Val Nolan

Is Dermot Healy the last honest Irishman? The astonishing truthfulness of his fourth novel implies that he is. Long Time, No See is a kaleidoscopic work, a beautiful mirror that gives form to the minutiae of Irish life as it continues to be lived in peripheral parts of the country.

Many novels have promised to dissect this milieu, yet few succeed in doing so with Healy’s great genius for humour, feeling, and language. Fewer again supply such a genuine depiction of growing up in rural Ireland.

Narrated by the 18-year-old Philip Feeney — who goes by the parochial alias Mister Psyche — Long Time, No See follows the inhabitants of Ballintra, an isolated village on the coast of Donegal, as they live largely untouched by the rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger. Walls are built, lobster pots are emptied, donkey hooves are clipped; the plot is little more than that, but Healy’s concern is rarely with narrative fireworks. He occupies a position on the literary spectrum between John McGahern and the best of Patrick McCabe, his work melding the former’s interest in the passage of time with the latter’s desperate need to understand the darkest secrets of small villages and towns.

One effect of this marriage is the way the reader is immediately playing catch-up, assaulted from page one with a rush of nicknames and idiosyncratic turns of phrase, a dizzying west-coast pidgin that is one part agricultural vernacular and one part reference to local history. Though we meet the characters in the middle of long-running public rites and private rituals, that is not to say Long Time, No See is stuck in the past. Ancient rhythms and Gaeilge words tie it all together, yes, but this is very much a novel of the now.

In the last ten years, Ballintra has gained cell-phones, The X-Factor, and a small Eastern European population; nonetheless, the villagers have lost neither their innate good nature nor their knowledge that the present comprises pieces of what has come before. Philip, the adolescent caught between the past and the future, is the perfect protagonist to lead us through this world forever on the cusp of extinction. Moreover, the provisional nature of his outlook betrays Healy’s narrator as an everyman, a channel for the widespread frustration of those whose prospects are, despite their efforts, contingent on factors beyond their control: “So what are you going to be?” he is asked by ‘The Blackbird’, elderly crony of his granduncle Joe-Joe. “I don’t know,” Philip says, “it depends on how I did in the Leaving”.

Coming early in Long Time, No See, this observation provides one of the novel’s strongest through-lines. ‘The Leaving’ implies a departure from the imaginative world of Philip’s childhood and, worse than that, it threatens an end to his time as Mister Psyche, the literal embodiment of his conscious and unconscious rural heritage.

To leave is to grow up in a way none of the sparkling supporting cast really have, it is to forsake the rum-runs of Joe-Joe and ‘The Blackbird’ (Malibu figures quite heavily here) and it is to force a decision about his girlfriend Anna, for, in a wonderfully Irish fashion, that dalliance has never been formalised out of fear it will end up “going dark”.

Healy hints, occasionally, at the heavy cost of growing up but the novel is ultimately ambiguous on this, as it is on most issues. The author’s intent is to emulate lived experience, and so, just like in real life, Long Time, No See leaves the readers draw their own conclusions. As one of the story’s octogenarian philosophers has it, “Where do you put the question marks when you’re not asking questions?”

The most daring thing Long Time, No See does is portray rural Ireland as it is. A great lump of a novel, Healy’s book embraces the eccentric hiberno-dreamtime of its characters, a mutable set of beliefs whereby nothing is as it seems and no one is ever too perturbed by it. Though a bullet-hole in a window presents an ostensible crisis early on, it is to Healy’s credit that he never steers towards true violence or the clichés of tragic inner lives.

Secrets and heartbreaks abound, of course, most obviously Philip’s loss of a friend in a car crash a year earlier, but the author is more interested in how these experiences are accepted into collective memory rather than in burying them and dealing with the fallout. It is almost, as Philip’s mother says, “something where everything is light and airy”.

A gentle, almost loving elbow in the ribs of our communal absurdities, the things we say and, more importantly, the things we don’t say, Healy’s first novel in more than a decade is a critique delivered with true understanding. It is neither sentimental nor nostalgic, more an extraordinary act of ventriloquism, utilising the many voices of Ballintra, and its surrounds, to build a story from dialogue as much as from anything else. Philip, Joe-Joe, and ‘The Blackbird’ are believable characters, making up for what they lack in conflict with the complexities of their relationships as friends, family, and neighbours. To lose oneself in their back-and-forth is to partake in a moving celebration of country living and continuity.

Therein lies the honesty of Healy’s writing. To encounter the resonance and reality of Ballintra’s inhabitants is to find oneself sitting on the pier with them or sharing a drop over a kitchen table; to open this novel is to enter a layered and meaningful world which has been well worth the wait.

Succeeding as an immensely enjoyable reading experience as much as a carefully wrought aesthetic marvel, Long Time, No See is a mesmerising achievement.

* Dr Val Nolan lectures on 20th century and contemporary literature at NUI Galway.


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