A SECOND LIFE

Extensively revised and "renewed" edition

Following a car crash, for several seconds Dublin photographer Sean Blake is clinically dead, but finds his progress towards the afterworld blocked by a haunting face he only partially recognises. Restored to life - to a miraculous second chance at life - his world feels profoundly changed. He is haunted by not knowing who he truly is because this is not the first time he has been given a second life. At six weeks of age he was taken from his birth mother, a young girl forced to give him up for adoption. Now he knows that until he unlocks the truth about his origins, he will be a stranger to his wife, Geraldine, to his children and to himself.

Struggling against a wall of official silence and a complex sense of guilt, Sean determines to find his birth mother, embarking on an absorbing journey into archives, memories, dreams and startling confessions. Acclaimed upon publication by Penguin in 1994, A Second Life continued to haunt Dermot Bolger's imagination. He has never allowed its republication until he felt ready to retell the story in a new and even more compelling way. This book is therefore neither an old novel nor a new one, but a completely "renewed" novel, that grows towards a spelling-binding conclusion that is profoundly moving.

In Oct 2010 A Second Life was published by New Island as part of their Classic Irish Novels series. To order from New Island click here

To inquire about translation rights to this book please e-mail lshaughnessy@apwatt.co.uk

To inquire about other rights please contact the author via this website.

'I was more moved by this book than by anything I have read in a long time. It is utterly heartbreaking. For me it is Bolger's finest work. .remarkable in its sensitivity and tragic in its accuracy' - Madeleine Keane, Sunday Independent

'A master storyteller. A Second Life is absolutely splendid, sharp, observant, surprising, anarchic, funny and compelling. it's a wonderful book. Read it' - Sean Rafferty, BBC Radio Ulster

"A marvellous, multi-faceted, fascinating read...Ireland itself (its landscape, its tensions and generational conflicts) is brilliantly realized" - Tom Adair in Scotland on Sunday.

'Audacious and moving. Bolger's brilliant conflation of detective story, ghost hunt and history lesson is compulsive' - Alison Foster, The Times

 

Author's Note to new edition

When I first wrote A Second Life in 1993 my own life - as the father of two small children the same ages as the children in this book - was probably as chaotic and pressurized as Sean Blake's life seems to be until the car crash on the opening page of this novel prompts him to take stock of that life. The similarities end there, because good fiction is about throwing yourself into the mindset of people who are unlike you, although you always bring or discover surprising parts of yourself on that journey. Unlike Sean Blake, I had not been adopted, although the death of my mother when I was ten undoubtedly left an absence and a yearning, which echoes something of the void Sean feels at never having known the woman who was his birth mother.

Adoption is the central theme of this book, but A Second Life did not set out to be about the on-going searches that were becoming more visible in Ireland in the early 1990s as adopted children desperately tried to unearth the truth about their birth mothers and to understand the plight of those young mothers who felt they had no option left but to sign away their children born out of wedlock. They were mothers who later found every door closed in their faces if they tried to make contact with - or discover the least bit of information about - the children who were perpetual absences in their new lives; children whose existences they were often too scared or ashamed ever to speak about to anyone, even to their own husbands.

This novel had a different starting point. In 1992 my fifth play in three years was staged, a production in the Peacock Theatre during the Dublin Theatre Festival. So much was happening in my life back then that my main memory is not of the production itself, but of the play being "teched" one afternoon in the darkened theatre. During the blackouts as the lighting man reconfigured his settings, the only lights visible were two illuminated (and ignored) "No Smoking" signs on the wall and the glow of a dozen cigarettes littering the darkness as an anxious cast and crew puffed away.

The cast talked a lot that afternoon, as casts do during the slow business of a technical set up, and one actor started to describe being in a car crash some years previously. The accident was so serious that his heart had briefly stopped and suddenly he found himself observing the accident scene from above, so detached from his own body below that he had time casually to observe the tiny detail that small flecks of dandruff were sprinkled on the hat of the paramedic who was trying to cut him free from the wreckage.

From such seeds are novels born. This odd image - and also his comment about how he initially possessed a sense of feeling almost cheated at being brought back to life inside his badly injured body - haunted me over the following months. When I finally found the time to sit down and start work on a new novel, I knew that I had my opening. I'd never had an out-of-body experience, but a desire for research led me into the situation where one Friday night a state-registered nurse legally administered a powerful dose of hallucinogenic drugs into my left buttock in a deconsecrated Protestant church in the grounds of a former mental asylum in Dublin: This experience was sufficiently terrifying to make me become as wary of method research as Sir John Gielgud was of method acting.

Some authors meticulously plot their novels in advance, skillfully bringing readers on pre-ordained imaginative journeys. I work at the opposite end of the spectrum: what draws me to my desk each morning is a combination of anxiety, stress and curiosity, in that, quite simply, I have no idea what is going to happen next.

A novel may start by being about one thing, but as a citizen you always have your antennae open to the discourse starting to seep out in your society. During the early months of writing A Second Life, often when I turned on a radio or simply overheard conversations on buses I realised that an ever-growing number of mothers and children separated during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s were now desperate to find out about each other. Despite huge obstacles, people were attempting to find ways to take the first tentative steps towards seeking out the stranger who was their parent or child, never sure if these approaches would be welcomed or rebuffed.

Adoption gradually became a backdrop and then the central theme of this novel as it began to echo some of the hidden stories within Irish society that were finally starting to be told around me. People once silenced by shame were no longer being silenced. Irish society had never been ruled by any real obsessive devotion to religion, but more by a fetish about respectability - the main facet of which involved keeping family secrets secret. The wall of silence caused by this mindset was being eroded by individual voices in 1993 - a decade before films like The Magdalene Sisters were made - but the physical walls behind which the adoption files were kept remained as high and impenetrable as ever.

As a novelist I was trying to absorb the undercurrents rippling through Irish society and to weave them all into the backdrop of the novel. At around that time I attended a one-act play by the great Jennifer Johnston. It was lunch-time, a meagre house, a bare set with just one chair. The superb actress Rosaleen Linehan entered, sat down, and commenced her monologue. But after ninety seconds she stopped and did something incredibly brave. She looked at the audience and said, "Excuse me; I got off on the wrong note. I think I will start again." She quietly walked off stage, turned around, came back on and mesmerized us for the next hour.

A Second Life was hardbacked by Viking in 1994, softbacked by Penguin in 1995, sold well and was translated. But I never allowed it to be reprinted when it went out of print because, as the years went on and I would occasionally glance back over it, I kept thinking of the courage of Rosaleen Linehan on stage that day saying, "I got off on the wrong note". I know that - amid all the pressures of my busy family life, my myriad writing and other commitments at that time and the fact that I was trying to capture a moving object by tapping into the psychic mood of the period as birth mothers and adopted children started to make their voices heard - I also had got off on the wrong note, because in the white heat in which I wrote the original novel, I had burdened Sean Blake with too much anger and too many scores to settle.

At thirty-four I had needed a good editor and so at fifty-one I have sat down and - half as editor and half as writer re-imagining each scene - I have tried to re-engage not just with the characters of Sean Blake and Lizzy Sweeney, but also with my younger self whom I kept questioning as I cut away chunks of dialogue, added or removed scenes and rewrote almost every paragraph in some way. Therefore this is not the old novel and nor is it fully a new one. I like to view it as a renewed novel, as the novel that I might have written if - amid all that was happening in my own life and the changes occurring in the society around me - I had taken a deep breath and said, "I'm going to start again."

Sean Blake, as I say, is not based on me, but his children in the novel - aged three and aged six months - were based on my own children and Sean's wife, Geraldine, was very much based on my own wife, Bernie. Rewriting the book in the early months of 2010 allowed me the chance to remember her again exactly as she was as a young mother. I looked forward to her re-reading it when republished, to giving her the first signed copy as I always did. Tragically, several weeks after this renewed version was completed, while radiant with good health and energy, she collapsed when swimming with one of our sons and died without warning from a ruptured aneurysm.

Several of my books were directly dedicated to her, but A Second Life had originally been dedicated to our two beautiful sons. This renewed edition is dedicated to her memory, because no matter what name appeared on the dedication page, she was always the person for whom my novels and plays were written, in the hope that she might like them, in the knowledge that she would recognize so many tiny moments transformed by fiction, because she was the centre of my life. The Ireland of 1993 was changed utterly from the Ireland of a decade before and is almost unrecognizable from the Ireland of today. One small change is that when a commissioned novel is now finished it is sent to a publisher within seconds as an e-mail attachment. Back in 1993 manuscripts still needed to be posted.

In 1993 the order of nuns who had run the High Park Magdalene Laundry in Drumcondra applied for an exhumation license to remove the remains of one hundred and thirty-three women who had died while incarcerated in their laundry, because they wished to sell the site to a property developer. They could only provide death certificates for seventy five of the one hundred and thirty three women and, during the exhumation, the remains of yet another twenty-two nameless and forgotten Magdalene women were unearthed. All but one of these women's bodies were cremated and reburied in a mass grave in Glasnevin Cemetery.

By chance, on the day that I walked down to the General Post Office in O'Connell Street in Dublin to post off the manuscript of this book, three survivors from that Magdalene laundry were seated outside the entrance, visible at last in the most historical site of Irish rebellion, defiantly collecting signatures for a petition to have a monument erected to the nameless woman created and transferred to that mass grave. I stopped to sign the petition and talk to them. At one stage I even held aloft the jiffy bag containing the manuscript and was about to say, "This book is about you and about women like you. It tells one of your stories."

But wisely I said nothing: this book could not be about them, because nobody could tell their stories that they uniquely owned. All I could hope to do - in 1993 and again in 2010 - was to echo something of their lives within the parallel imaginative world that is fiction. No novelist could so eloquently and honestly tell their stories in the way that so many of them have done so in interviews and memoirs and documentaries in the years since, when the walls of silence have finally been breached and so many ageing mothers and now grown-up children have tentatively made contact with each other and started to fill in the missing gaps of secrets that could once never be spoken about.

Dermot Bolger
Sept, 2010

 

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