Any tale that describes an American’s permanent move to the UK or Ireland will immediately grab my attention because of my connection to this experience. In Molly McCloskey’s novel “When Light is Like Water” Alice travels to Ireland to live and work there while she figures out what to do with her life. She ends up falling in love and setting there. It’s so difficult to resist the charms of Irish men! However, the majority of the novel relates an account of the dissolution of her marriage through an affair and her present life sorting through her emotionally-broken past. In doing so, McCloskey creates a powerful account of the complexities of Alice’s wayward love life and the difficult grief-laden process of moving forward when she’s lost the people who are closest to her.
The story of this novel is relatively simple, but the psychologically-insightful and evocative writing is what make this tale come vibrantly to life. McCloskey is highly attuned to relationships in communities, social groups and in romantic partnerships. She observes how "There is nothing like the presence of an outsider to heighten one's enjoyment of being an insider." This statement could readily be applied to a foreigner who enters a community or someone new that’s introduced to a circle of friends. It shows how our connections with others are reinforced by a kind of smug familiarity when an unknown entity enters the ring.
The primary focus is Alice’s affair with a man named Darragh and the emotional repercussions this causes on all sides. It’s presented as if this romantic betrayal was almost inevitable but the impact upon Alice and the way she processes it comes to her as a surprise: "I had always imagined adultery would feel shadowy and whispered, a world in black and white, all cobblestones and dripping eaves, but what it felt like was being always on the run, everything breathless and fractured and a little ridiculous." Rather than being caught up in the sensationalism of it, Alice is disarmed by how it’s exhausting and embarrassing having an affair. It tinges her retrospective account of her relationships with these two men with a special kind of melancholy as if this is an example of the inevitable solitary nature of life.
The author makes sharp observations about the way we are in some ways strangers within our own relationships. When describing her connection to her husband she states "there are currents that operate independently of us and of which we seem remarkably ignorant." When you’re part of a couple it so often feels like there is an energy to it which both participants are entirely unaware of as over time it moves between states of psychological/physical/sexual closeness and distance. Equally, the novel makes astute observations about the strangeness of encountering someone we once had a strong connection with: "Why is it that what we so often find on meeting someone we’ve loved seems not a residue or an after-image but a feeling more like foolishness?"
When reading this book I was strongly reminded of Anne Enright’s masterful novel “The Forgotten Waltz” which recounts a woman’s romance with a married man. Not only does Enright also dissect the moment by moment swings of emotion which accompany acts of infidelity, but she also shows how the Irish nation transforms in the background of her story. McCloskey does something similar as Alice witnesses the country change over a few decades. She observes how “Ireland at the end of the eighties often resembled was a place celebrating, insistently, its own collapse, and there was a certain dignity in that, a triumph even." and carries on through the early 2010s when the country experienced its ill-fated property boom. But McCloskey also casts her gaze further afield as Alice’s journalism takes her to Africa and her observations of society there make a sharp contrast to her impressions of Ireland.
“When Light is Like Water” is a deftly told story of painful heartache told as if looking through soiled panes of glass.