Ann Mann’s latest novel is steeped in Irish mystery – though she can boast not a drop of Irish blood
29 November, 2016 — By Piers Plowright
Highgate-based novelist Ann Mann
IRELAND is a mystery: politically (think Troubles), poetically (think Yeats), and pictorially (think misty mountains).
Highgate-based novelist Ann Mann has been in love with the place ever since she discovered WB Yeats at her rather enlightened girls’ school, aged 13.
Not a drop of Irish blood, but she feels the country and its culture in her heart and mind, something that found expression in her series of highly praised BBC Radio 3 documentaries on Yeats, Synge, Heaney, MacNeice, and O’Casey in the 1980s and 90s.
And now, in her second novel, she’s back there. There’s a Yeats quote before the plot begins: six lines from his great early poem To Ireland in the Coming Times. They are worth requoting: The measure of her flying feet/Made Ireland’s heart begin to beat;/And Time bade all his candles flare/to light a measure here and there;/And may the thoughts of Ireland brood/Upon a measured quietude.
Because, in a way, all the ingredients of this novel are in those lines, particularly “flying feet”: Silas Murphy (a Michael Flatley dance-alike), his lead dancer Clodagh, and his troupe of dancers are getting ecstatic notices – “Takes the Irish dance to new heights!”, “Possibly the most mysterious and poetically Celtic of all Irish dance routines!” shout the critics, and Irish audiences are going wild.
All seems set for Arcanum, the name Silas has come up with for his dazzling new troupe – to blaze their way to the top of the international bill, filling huge stadiums like the O2, across the world, with their mix of traditional Irish dance, Celtic Christianity, and the arcane world of the tarot. So as the coach carrying the dancers, minus Silas and Clodagh – she’s injured a leg and he’s stayed behind to get it checked, planning to follow by car a day later – sets off on a stormy autumn night from their triumph in Dublin to their next date in Ennis, hearts and hopes are high. The leg can be fixed, the performances will go on, the Ennis audiences will be equally ecstatic, and Boston-born Silas’s dream will come true. Except, somewhere between Dublin and Ennis, the coach vanishes. And that’s the only word. No reports of an accident, no sightings, no CCTV images and, strangest of all, no response from the coach driver’s or the dancers’ mobiles: “Unable to connect” is the only answer that comes back. “Bloody mystery, if you ask me,” says the manager of the coach company. Which is exactly what it is and what this novel develops.
To tell any more would reveal too much. But there’s a deadly mix of the occult, of Irish history, of a struggle between ancient and modern good and evil, of bravery and cowardice, dancing through these pages, along with some wonderful characters: Silas, Clodagh, a transgender American medium, and a stubborn Garda Detective Superintendent, among them.
And, if you want to know something about the power of Tarot cards and the subtle history of Irish Dance, they’re in there too. A Mad Dance My Masters!
• Arcanum: An Irish Mystery. By Ann Mann. Matador/Troubador 7.99