The Truth About Love

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Overview

The accidental death of a teenage boy has a profound effect on a small Irish town in this compelling new novel from the bestselling author of Damage. As Sissy, the boy’s mother, struggles to overcome her senseless loss, her daughter, Olivia, works to keep her brother’s memory alive in a swiftly changing country. And Thomas—known as “The German” to his neighbors—is drawn into the family’s grief, forcing him to confront the past that has brought ...

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Truth About Love

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Overview

The accidental death of a teenage boy has a profound effect on a small Irish town in this compelling new novel from the bestselling author of Damage. As Sissy, the boy’s mother, struggles to overcome her senseless loss, her daughter, Olivia, works to keep her brother’s memory alive in a swiftly changing country. And Thomas—known as “The German” to his neighbors—is drawn into the family’s grief, forcing him to confront the past that has brought him to Ireland and a new crossroads.
 
A brilliant meditation on love, loss, and the beauty of living even when times are tough, The Truth About Love shows us how men and women are shaped by tragedy, by their inherent characters, and by what they are able to learn from one another.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“[A] compelling look at family and memory, despair and redemption. . . . Passionate and heart-felt.” —The Wall Street Journal

“A quiet masterpiece. . . . It is hard not to go hurtling through this book, with its controlled yet vast embrace of all that is terrifying about living.” —New York Post

“Sophisticated. . . . Hart shows how love of family and love of country can feed from each other.” —The New York Times Book Review
 
“An ambitious and poetic weaving of a long-ago family tragedy into the tragic history, and histories, of our time. Josephine Hart has come home in triumph.” —John Banville

“In this compelling and remarkable book, Hart has written a moving lament for exile. . . . A tour de force. . . . There are echoes of Beckett and Joyce in Hart’s writing.” —The  Times Literary Supplement (London)
 
“Deeply moving. . . . [The Truth About Love] packs a punch far beyond its size. . . . An uncompromising tale that explores grief, redemption, and misery.” —Irish Independent
 
“A bleak tale, beautifully told, about the burden we must all, as human beings, survive.” —The Times (London)
 
“Hart’s dialogue is extraordinary, blending poetry and naturalism like the great Irish playwrights.” —The Independent (London)
 
“A brave novel. . . . Hart’s [characters] live beyond the confines of even her fiery and elegant prose.” —The Guardian (London)
 
“[The Truth About Love] embraces themes of heart, soul, pride and shame of country, guilt and memory, emphasizing that the past will not be ignored. . . . Its universal themes will resonate with readers, underscoring that losses are unavoidable for those who love, and enduring is not easy, but that is part of living.” —Las Vegas Review-Journal
 
“A genuine, deeply felt story of love and loss.” —Daily Mail

Tom LeClair
In this sophisticated literary work, Hart shows how love of family and love of country can feed from each other.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Hart's previous five novels (Damage; Sin) addressed the disturbing power of love, and in her latest, she returns to the topic with mixed success. Hart opens with the stream-of-consciousness narration of a teenage boy's fatal accident in 1962 Ireland before shifting to the precise, nearly stifling voice of Thomas Middlehoff (aka “The German”) at the funeral. Distant and polite, Thomas orbits ever closer to the beleaguered O'Hara family: the boy's father, Tom, wants to buy a family heirloom from Thomas; he bumps into Olivia, the boy's sister, with his car (she sustains scrapes and bruises); and the boy's mother, Sissy, exposes her deep grief to him, spurring him into contemplations of his own secrets and horrors. After another Joycean interlude depicting Sissy's treatment in a mental hospital, Olivia takes over the story from the present day, and though outwardly successful, she refuses to let go of her anger at her brother's death. Unfortunately, revelations in the second half of this brief novel feel rushed, while the characters' proclivities for introspection do little to create narrative urgency. (Aug.)
Library Journal
Hart's affecting new work opens with the extraordinary monolog—desperate and fragmented—of a teenaged boy who's just been blown apart in an explosion he has innocently engineered. "Turn me over quickly. Don't let my mother see me," he thinks. That's one sign of love. Another sign is how devotedly husband and daughter watch over the mother after the boy dies, the daughter even engaging in some fiercely well-meant tough talk when the mother is hospitalized, unable to bear the loss of her son after the earlier death of a daughter. The husband even persuades Mr. Middlehoff, a German who lives in town, to part with a gate that seems a fitting memorial. And then the mother revives and goes on, this being stolid small-town Ireland in the early 1960s, where difficulties are meant to be survived. But as the daughter, Olivia, realizes, Ireland is changing, and Mr. Middlehoff is there to add a depth of understanding that others lack. VERDICT Poignant, engrossing, and deftly realized, this is a more nuanced read than the author's still excellent Damage and should be considered by most fiction readers.—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
Kirkus Reviews
An Irish boy's death continues to haunt his family circle for 40 years in Hart's elliptical, chimerical tale. Like most of their compatriots in a country torn by dissension and shrunken by emigration, Tom and Sissy O'Hara have never had an easy time of it. But nothing in their lives has prepared them for the way their world shivers and contracts on the June day in 1962 when their son is killed in an accident. From that moment on, the couple's principal business is survival. It's a job they share with their daughter Olivia-second son Daragh is no more than a wraithlike walk-on-and, curiously, with Thomas Middlehoff, a German neighbor who's settled in Leinster to retreat from his homeland and write on literary subjects. Beginning with Middlehoff, Hart (The Reconstructionist, 2001, etc.) presents narratives from his point of view, Olivia's and Sissy's. Despite Tom O'Hara's heart-rending devotion to his wife, she sinks so deep in despondency that she's eventually hospitalized, splintering her family and provoking Olivia's resentment. Middlehoff, a sober widower of surprisingly delicate sensibility who clings to his own mistress as if to a life raft, is drawn closer to the family when Tom asks if he can buy an ornamental gate his son had admired. But it's Olivia's perspective that's the most surprising. Years after her mother returns home, having "slipped behind the event and gone back to who she was before," Olivia, now a highly regarded actress ("I stumbled into acting. It happens"), spins a skein of reminiscences that increasingly drift toward a chronicle of Ireland's purgatorial generation of bombings, crackdowns, hunger strikes and tentative accords, blurring the line between her fierce,undying love for her brother and her equally troubled love for her country. Focusing on the overwhelming question Olivia asks her Harley Street therapist-"What's wrong with loving someone for life? Even when they are dead?"-Hart produces her least mannered, most moving novel to date. First printing of 75,000
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307474261
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/10/2010
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.95 (h) x 0.65 (d)

Meet the Author

Josephine Hart is the best-selling author of Damage, Sin, Oblivion, The Stillest Day, and The Reconstructionist. Her work has been translated into twenty-seven languages. She lives in London with her husband, Maurice Saatchi, and their two sons.

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Read an Excerpt

ONE

. . . today, June 18th, 1962, I, Thomas Middlehoff, known locally as “the German,” attend my first Irish funeral. My housekeeper, Bridget, informed me that there would be no objection. The iconography of this particular death and burial is an unfamiliar one in this place that has known peace for decades. As in all such towns there are recognised routes to eternity: the heart that fails; the cells that in either boredom or rebellion rise up against their host and triumph; the accidental tumble over the edge of life in cars or on bicycles; the exhausted surrender to the sudden storm on water, which “tossed the boat around like . . .”—the metaphor is always dramatic. All these routes eventually seem to have been preordained. This one does not.

The intensity of heat that yesterday had so startled this small town in Ireland has today abated somewhat. The sun shines but its light is now less troubling. The day is warm but it no longer soars in triumph as though it had wished to teach an uncomfortable lesson to those who had failed to factor its burning rays into their sartorial decisions.

The cathedral is full. Mourners who’d arrived too late to be seated huddle in the aisles, some leaning against the confessional boxes in which they normally kneel in darkness. I stand at the back and carefully follow the proceedings in a missal loaned to me by Bridget. It had been handed to me with an air of solemnity, as though it were an ancient letter of introduction that would guarantee safe passage to its recipient. Bridget herself had received it from her grandmother, no doubt with equal solemnity. Bridget has two missals. The new one, a gift from her son, has, perhaps due to a generational imperative, supplanted in importance the older gift which, nevertheless, I was honour-bound to return to her after the funeral.

The ritual of mass begins with the sign of the cross, the ultimate emblem of the sacrifice that mass celebrates. So that no one need doubt its significance, the sign of the cross is made no fewer than fifty-two times during the ceremony. Bridget’s son had evidently counted them once at a Sunday mass, a fact that, though it impressed Bridget greatly, implied to me that this was not a boy in whom resided excessive reverence.

This is a Mass for the dead. Bridget has explained to me that as such it is shorter, due to the omission of certain psalms, “Judica me,” which Bridget had quoted to me with such feeling I had later turned to it in the missal and memorised it. “For Thou art my strength; Why hast Thou cast me off? And why do I go sorrowful whilst the enemy afflicteth me?” It is magnificent. Its omission is appropriate. I concentrate on my missal and after some time I note a certain stirring in the congregation. Slowly the mourners stand up and move from their pews. Someone behind me whispers “offerings.” An orderly queue is formed and men—mostly, I would guess from their age and bearing, the heads of families—are joined by a number of women who shuffle forward with lowered faces, clutching large handbags to them as though they were an aid to gender identification. A number of the men hold white envelopes clasped tightly in their hands and stare straight ahead. Others have placed their envelope carefully in a jacket pocket from which it slightly protrudes, like the edge of a carefully ironed handkerchief.

All move forward silently until they stand before Tom O’Hara and Father Dwyer who are positioned together behind a dark carved-wood table. This has been placed to the left of a small side chapel, in which, on a high bier, the body of Tom O’Hara’s son lies in its coffin. Each man hands over his envelope, his offering. I note all this as I too make my way forward, as Bridget had told me would be expected of me. When it is finally my turn to stand before this man, this bereaved father, Tom O’Hara, I do not look at him. I had noted from their bowed heads that those in front of me had also failed this test of courage. His “thank you” is muffled. It’s a strange gratitude. Bridget had informed me that all monies go to the Parish and that the amount collected is, in a sense, a measure of the sympathy and grief. Measure for measure. As I walk back to my pew I observe Mrs. O’Hara and her daughter and son sitting in the front pew. They sit motionless, isolated in a place of honour no one begrudges them.

Then it is over. Everyone stands. Family and relatives now make their way to the side chapel. To bear witness, no doubt, as the coffin is borne out to the waiting hearse on the shoulders of men, among them his father. Mourners scatter; the men scurry, heads down, towards their cars. Their wives walk slowly, smartly dressed, suits mostly though it is a summer day, heads adorned with discreet hats, mantillas on the heads of the younger women. Car doors open and close with care. Noise cannot be borne today. Everyone, even children, senses the need for quietness.

I decide that I too will walk behind the hearse. It is, I feel, correct that I should do so. It is appropriate. And so the long, slow procession trails its way through the town in which today, for this cortège, every shop has closed. Had it been a state funeral it could not have been more evocative of a dignified expression of grief. At last, perhaps after forty minutes, we arrive at the graveyard, one of mankind’s most underrated symbols of civilisation. A small graveyard is a most particular resting place. It is a place in which the dead may nestle but do not mingle. Here, in this Irish cemetery, the mass grave is unknown. A certain propriety maintains.

As the coffin of the boy is lowered there is a dangerous moment. The boy’s sister seems to sway forwards toward the open grave. In a second she is caught. A priest places his hands, with some force, on her shoulders and steadies her. Separation of the dead from the living often requires strength. Another continues with the prayers.

A handful of earth is thrown over the coffin and the process of filling in a grave commences. After some time mourners begin to drift away. I look around awkwardly, aware that Dr. Carter is in conversation with Father Dwyer and that Bishop Fullerton is speaking quietly to Mr. O’Hara. I am an observer and a stranger, the one I feel almost essential to the other. The elective outsider, the truthful observer of the scene requires an anatomical eye, which I have endeavoured over the years to develop.

My eye now meets that of another, it is caught and trapped for a moment by that of Mrs. O’Hara. There is no escape from it. Her eye is a cold eye, unblinking, frozen perhaps in a memory of what it has witnessed. I take a step toward her but she turns away. I am released into freefall.

Then the vision comes unbidden. Why does the mind allow intrusion against our will? I saw her falling. I saw my mother falling. She did not fall in parts. She fell in her entirety through a powder of the dove-grey dust of shattered masonry. The white-grey stone leg of the statue of a tall young man fell with her. The subtle difference in the shades of white and grey that day delineated contours as sharply as crimson on a black background. The stone boy had stood sentinel in the long colonnade that connected the drawing room to the conservatory. He had been a reliable companion in the childhood games I had played with my brother. He had been just. He had never taken sides. The conservatory, I remember, did not disintegrate that day. Such anomalies are more common in the aftermath of bombing than one might imagine. My mother had just left the drawing room and was, in her last minutes, close to her stone companion who, heroically, fell with her, his leg the first dismembering, then the second, his arm. It broke off in an arc and for a moment it seemed as though he threw it towards her —as if to say, “Take it, take it! Cling to this, this part of me that I offer to you.” Then the falling, fast. The vision dies. And I am here, again, in this place. At an Irish funeral, my first Irish funeral.

Bishop Fullerton now approaches Mrs. O’Hara. He talks to her. Rather, he talks at her. She simply looks at him. Does he also feel trapped? He steps back from her slightly. I move forwards. Each of us is wrong. She turns away and toward her husband. It’s time to go home. Tom O’Hara guides her away. Mourners separate to make a path for them. Priest and bishop stand aside for them. Their grief takes precedence over the normal hierarchical structure of this community. Murmuring quietly, a procession follows them. Some scatter to left or right to stand by other graves. Eamonn, the bishop’s driver, who takes him to and from my house for our chess evenings, approaches me. Would I like to go with the bishop to the O’Haras’ house? I am uncertain whether this invitation comes from Bishop Fullerton or from the O’Hara family. I decline. I will walk home. Though hours remain this day is over.

TWO

It is not true that I discourage visitors from Lake House. It is, however, true that I do not issue invitations. I exclude from this assessment my monthly chess game with Robert Carter and, on separate evenings, with Bishop Fullerton. Since this is a surprisingly formal society I am untroubled by any intrusion by townspeople, other than those who make the three-mile journey for the not necessarily companionable purpose of earning their living.

There exists between myself and Bridget, my non-resident housekeeper, respect, tolerance, and on her part determination that Irish charm will eventually wear me down and I will, “like all strangers who come here, Mr. Middlehoff, fall in love with the place.” Her use of my name is in its own way an act of intimacy, since I am aware that in the town they simply call me “the German.” As a statement of exclusion this is as accurate as it is definitive. It is one I welcome. I believe I carry with me what every German carries with them, an aura, an emanation. I am German. You know me. I regard myself as under an obligation in this matter. “That this is done shall stand for ever more.” And a day. I am mindful of my responsibility as a member of a cursed tribe. In Ireland there is of course no “te absolvo.” There is, however, little interest in a story of evil that the Irish do not fully believe possible. For had they known the truth, some slight readjustment to their view of their own modern history might have been necessary. The moral demands, even of peripheral images, might have blurred the purity of their ancient vision. However, I continue to appreciate a certain discretion concerning the history of my country that I had not found elsewhere in my exile.

Though I remain sensible to my inclusion almost two months ago in the congregation of mourners at the funeral of the boy, I do not seek, nor have I been offered, further integration. Robert Carter, whose medical attendance on the day of the accident had been in a sense accidental, has also retreated to the comparatively isolated position of Protestant doctor in an Irish town. My friendship with him, a former Major in the Medical Corps of the British Army, is no doubt mysterious to them. Perhaps they are convinced that it is based solely on a passion for the game of chess, a game for which their temperament renders them wholly unsuited. As I wonder whether my father would agree with this judgement I hear the sound of a car on gravel and, looking from my study window, see Tom O’Hara emerge from his battered Morris Minor like a man who had been trapped too long in a small cupboard and must now carefully test the limbs that had been forced into abnormal contortions. He looks around and then, it seems, straight at me as I stand by the window. I have no alternative but to leave my study and proceed down the long parquet-floored hall towards the dark oak door that separates me from this uninvited guest. I open my heavy door, slowly.

“Good morning Mr. Middlehoff. I’ve come about the gate.”

“Good morning Mr. O’Hara.”

“Good morning Mr. Middlehoff,” he says again. And again, “I’ve come about the gate.”

The note is abrupt, even peremptory. How am I to respond? This man, whose rather leonine head and large body speak to a slower, calmer nature, is now in a place I recognise and I know the price the terrain exacts. Courtesy, absolute courtesy is now required. It is a balm and today I apply it for my own protection as well as his.

“Which gate, Mr. O’Hara? Which gate? I’m sorry, Mr. O’Hara, but I do not know to what you refer.”

“Didn’t your estate manager, Tim, mention it?”

“No.”

“I asked him to. You’re sure he didn’t mention it?”

“I am sure.”

“Well then I’m sorry. I wouldn’t be here otherwise.”

“No?”

“Do you think I would just turn up at a stranger’s house, Mr. Middlehoff? Just turn up here and ask him for a gate? Is that what you think of us? Is that the kind of people you think we are?”

“I’m sorry, Mr. O’Hara. This a surprising visit and a most surprising request. As for Tim, he is spending a week in Wexford.”

“In Wexford?”

“Yes.”

“Must be the sister then.”

“Yes.”

“Well, well! The gate. The one with the helmet on the top. You know the one: it marks the end of Lake Lane. You brought it here. Took down Edmund Pennington’s old wooden gate.”

“I know the gate, Mr. O’Hara. It marks the perimeter of my land. So indeed I know the gate.”

“Of course you do. It’s yours! Well, I want to buy it from you.”

“You wish to purchase my gate from me? Why?”

“My son, the lad, admired it. Saw it all the time when he waited in the club rowing boat for the island swimmers to be ready. Gazed at it, told me he made up stories about it. Said it was a warrior’s gate because of the carved helmet at the top. He was at that age. Warriors, heroes, you know.”

And I remember my last conversation with the boy.

“I know what you mean and may I again, Mr. O’Hara, express my deepest sympathy to you and your family.”

“Thank you. Thank you. I’m aware it’s a very strange request.”

“It is, Mr. O’Hara.”

“I’ve got it in my head no other gate will do.”

“That is something that often happens. Will you please come in, Mr. O’Hara? Coffee, perhaps?”

From the Hardcover edition.

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Reading Group Guide

The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group's discussion of The Truth About Love, Josephine Hart's masterful novel about love, loss, and memory.

1. The novel's title is The Truth About Love. What do you think Hart's “truth about love” really is? What would each narrator say?

2. Reread the epigraph, from Gottfried Benn. Now that you've read the novel, how do you understand it? Has your understanding changed from when you first read it?

3. Discuss the opening scenes. What were you thinking as you read these pages? Why didn't the boy want his mother to see him?

4. On page 24, Middlehoff describes himself as “an observer and a stranger, the one I feel almost essential to the other. The elective outsider, the truthful observer of the scene requires an anatomical eye, which I have endeavoured over the years to develop.” Is he right about the necessity of detachment to be a truthful observer? Does he manage to become one?

5.  Why is the gate so important to the O'Haras? To Middlehoff?

6. Several times in the novel, Tom O'Hara asserts, “Living close to what is lost, that's the only way.” Do you agree with this? Which characters don't, and why?

7. On page 33, Middlehoff tells Tom, “After a tragedy, many survivors are lost.” What does this mean? Which survivors are lost in this story?

8. Discuss the character Harriet Calder. What is her purpose in the novel? Why does Middlehoff accept her behavior?

9. Erik Middlehoff's book on Ireland was to be entitled The Weapons of the Country, with the categories Language, Love, and Memory. In what ways are these weapons to the Irish? Which is most powerful?

10. On page 71, Bishop Fullerton says, “There's a world of difference between a free nation building its soul on the tales of men who fought hard and long against a ruthless oppressor and breaking young minds with the weight of old sadnesses and burdening young shoulders with an unpayable debt to ghosts.” What is he referring to? Do you think the O'Haras would agree?

11. Middlehoff says his father “said a nation could forget, exploit, obscure, or live with its history” (page 72). Which does Ireland do? And Germany?

12. What role do fathers play in the novel? And mothers? Who is more influential?

13. Reread the passage on pages 122-3 that begins “Poor Olivia.” Is Sissy right about her legacy?

14. Why do you think Olivia is successful as an actress? How has her life prepared her for it?

15. On page 154, Olivia wonders if, in his book, Middlehoff was “trying to warn us? Or give us absolution?” What is she referring to?

16. Olivia says very little about her husband and children. Why is that?

17. Several times in the novel, characters talk about “the love of my life.” What do they mean when they say that? Who truly has found that kind of love?

18. Discuss Middlehoff's revelations on page 175, and his speech on page 183. How does the notion of guilt-both individual and collective-affect the characters in this novel?

19. Compare Tom O'Hara's love for Sissy with Thomas Middlehoff's love for Harriet. How are they different? How similar? And the women themselves?

20. Why does Bogus become so important to Olivia's story?

21. How much did you know about Ireland's history before reading this novel? Do you now want to learn more?

22. Reread the closing paragraph of the novel. Why does Olivia say that Middlehoff understood?

(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com)

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  • Posted August 2, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    fans of strong family drama will want to read Josephine Hart's fine tale

    In 1962 in Leinster, Ireland, the teenage son of Tom and Sissy O'Hara dies in an accident. Everyone comes to the funeral even newcomer Thomas "The German" Middlehoff who muses about attending his first Irish funeral. The parents of the victim and his siblings Olivia and Daragh know now life is surviving until you die.

    Over time however, the desire to just live becomes superseded by other needs except for the family patriarch who believes his mission in life is to keep his family safe and avoid risk. The widower expatriate who ran away from one death that haunts him, Middlehoff initially adopted the O'Hara philosophy, but found it permeated his literary work. Sissy becomes so depressed she is hospitalized. Olivia is angry and resentful as she feels she lives a dead life in homage to her late older brother; she turns to therapy and the the stage to pretend she lives. Finally there is Daragh who is simply an evanescent shadow with no substance.

    Rotating perspective the audience receives a powerful look at surviving the death of a loved one. The cast is deep as each represents an outlook on life and death. Although late surprise twists and denouements feels forced and hasty and detract from a profound look at THE TRUTH ABOUT LOVE even in death, fans of strong family drama will want to read Josephine Hart's fine tale of what happens to those who live after a loved one dies with no warning.

    Harriet Klausner

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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