Brian Moore: An Answer from Limbo

The fourth book in what I will inevitably come to refer to as my Moore-athon is also his fourth: An Answer from Limbo (1962). It’s not clear why his first novel Judith Hearne and third novel Ginger Coffey should be in print, while his second, The Feast of Lupercal, and this, should not. Or perhaps it is clear: the better known books have a more immediate appeal, and a more singular protagonist, but all four share qualities that make them linger longer in the memory after reading than most other novels I’ve read this year.

Like The Luck of Ginger Coffey, An Answer from Limbo deals with ambition (a subject I find fascinating) in an Irish emigrant in north America, but the approach and the outcome are very different. This time it’s Brendan Tierney, a man who left Ireland to live with his wife in New York, and who at the age of fourteen hoped “that I would become a great poet, that I would devote my life to the composition of a masterpiece and that, at the age of thirty, coughing blood in a last consumptive frenzy, I hoped to die, my gift still clear and unmuddied.” Now he has almost reached 30, and his masterpiece – a novel rather than a poem – is not yet complete. He is consumed with drive, mainly via his feelings for his friend Max, whose book has been accepted for publication:

How many works of the imagination have been goaded into life by envy of an untalented contemporary’s success? More, I would wager, than by any sight of talent rewarded.

The main problem is the ‘pram in the hallway’ – Tierney has a wife and children to support, and has to hold down a job to keep them in their apartment in Riverside Drive, “once an elegant address but now running down.” So, when he receives word from back home that the money he is sending his mother is not enough, he hits on the bright idea of bringing his mother over to New York to look after their children, so that his wife Jane can go out to work and he can be freed to work on the magnum opus.

The story that follows is told from the points of view of all the people whose lives unravel around Tierney as a result of his selfishness. His mother (“the stranger who is my parent”) does not conform to her son and daughter-in-law’s godless ways. His wife Jane dreams of “dark-haired ravishers.” He puts his own needs before his children (“But they have their whole lives ahead of them. This is my one chance”). The new family unit does not thrive:

Brendan said something harmless. The talk staggered up on its feet and went on in weary pilgrimage, talk about the flight, talk about the children, talk about New York, talk that was like the meeting of three strangers in a dentist’s waiting room, talk to pass the time until they could decently get free of each other.

And that’s to say nothing of the downturn in Tierney’s sexual relationship with his wife (“What’s the matter?” I said. “Nothing.” “Well, come on, then, take your dress off”). Tierney begins to see everyone in life as either with him – and his novel – or against him (“What enemy could I strike dumb with this tale?”).

Moore’s ability to keep all the plates spinning is impressive, and the story moves on with his usual smoothness. Nonetheless I felt that the dozen or more characters whose minds he inhabits were a handful too many, and the book would have had more force and directness if it came from the points of view of just the central characters. There is drama throughout, and like Judith Hearne and The Feast of Lupercal, it builds to highly charged scenes toward the end.

We also see the substitution of religion which was to become a theme in Moore’s fiction (as in The Doctor’s Wife). “My book for me,” says Tierney, “is the belief that replaces belief.” He denounces his mother’s traditional faith – “a performance of deeds in the expectation of praise” – while seeing that this describes his own writing perfectly.  For me, my belief in Moore is unshaken, even if this is not his finest book.  I have faith in this man.


  1. Hello,

    I found your web site via the Booker site and have looked in every now and then lately. This time your Brian Moore review caught my attention and I agree wholeheartedly with you that he is a very capable author. I have read some though not all of the books, mostly in my early twens. At the time I was stunned by “the color of blood”. If you don’t know it yet – it is a gripping novel and it takes a political stand (which is why I may have liked it so much at the time). It certainly is a very good read.
    I enjoy your web site and use it as inspiration for books I buy and read.
    Your German reader,


  2. Thank you for visiting Monika, and it’s good to find another reader who likes Brian Moore! I think I will start a campaign to get him more widely recognised, though I’m pleased that he was being read in Germany during his lifetime.

    I read The Colour of Blood several years ago, and I look forward to re-reading it when I work my way through all the ones in between. If you enjoyed it, you might also like Lies of Silence.

  3. Rereading Limbo right now. Bought a Canadian edition many years ago. I agree that all of Moore’s books should be in-print, all the time! Denis Sampson wrote a fascinating biography on Moore called Brian Moore: The Chameleon Novelist. It’s a Canadian imprint, not sure if it’s still in-print, but it’s definitely worth pursuing if you’re interested in Moore.

  4. Thanks cyberoutlaw. I’m reading through all Moore’s novels, and you can see my posts on them all by clicking here. I’m up to The Revolution Script so far.

    I haven’t read Sampson’s biog but have a copy of Patricia Craig’s more recent one. They had a bit of a spat a while ago which you can read about here.

  5. Hi John. I am new to Brian Moore having only read Judith Hearne but if that novel is anything to go by I am in for a treat. I am doing an MA at Queens Uni In Belfast and have decided to write my Dissertation on the anticlerical attitude in Moore’s fiction. Looking forward to it.

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