Brigit Egan is dying but she has no intention of going quietly into the dark night. In All Gods Dead, an extraordinary and ambitious novel, the author Marian O’Neill explores the external and internal struggle that surrounds Brigit’s final days. Externally, she is watched over by her daughters, Deirdre and Ruth, who are caught up in the tragic ritual of their mother’s approaching demise. They share shifts at the nursing home, console each other with meals, bottles of wine, black humour and recollections of their childhood.
Both have different perceptions of the love they received from their mother. Ruth has always viewed it as deep and unconditional whereas Deirdre believes that Brigit’s love came laden with demands and expectations she was never able to fathom.
Brigit, outwardly drooling, confused and heavily sedated, is engaged in an internal struggle as her memory cuts through the mists of her past with pitiless accuracy. Skin by skin, the layers of her youth are stripped away as she reveals how she escaped from the dulled confines of middle-class Irish society in the 1920 and created a new life for herself on the edges of Parisian society.
Beautiful and reckless, Brigit senses her escape when a brash young man in a flashy car drives by her parents’ house. Without hesitating, she climbs abroad and turns her face towards the freedom she senses beyond the green hills of home. But there are no greener, faraway hills. Just city after city, London, Paris, Berlin, each with its thrills, its dangers and its temptations.
Brigit becomes JoJo, she is today’s wannabe, the groupie, hanging on the edges of other people’s lives, knowing she can never be part of this sophisticated, swinging society. Marian O’Neill is an lyrical writer, sparse yet precise in her descriptions of the cafe culture that danced its way through the decade and beyond.
JoJo whirls with it, part-time dancer and singer, short-time lover of Picasso, confidante of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, circus performer and, eventually, when there are only two paths she can take, she opts for her safe, middle-class roots and embraces marriage and motherhood instead of self-destruction.
Her secret is safe and is banked down over the decades until, as she faces her own mortality, her story must be told, even if only she can hear it. To the others who come and go from her bedside, they are hearing the muttered ravings of a dying woman.
All Gods Dead brings a fascinating, decadent decade to life. The author has a brave voice and a light touch that moves us effortlessly from city to city, endowing each one with its own unique and historical atmosphere.