Chris Binchy

Apathy and Auntie Maeve make this a night to forget

I don’t envy Chris Binchy as I make my way to the Crescent Arts Centre for a reading at the Belfast Festival at Queen's. He might have written five novels, but it can’t be easy to share a stage with John Lynch, seasoned actor and now acclaimed author. Lynch - who has starred in films like In The Name of the Father - could say ‘I like HP on my corned beef,' invest it with profundity and gravitas and have the audience on the verge of tears. Binchy might struggle to keep up.

As it turns out, Lynch is stuck in France due to the strikes and Binchy has the stage - and host Marie-Louise Muir - all to himself. Perhaps it's this inadvertent top billing that has Binchy noticeable fidgety. Perhaps, too, he had anticipated an hour of in-depth probing and mining of his motivations. If that’s what he expected, that’s not what he gets.

The event starts at 6.30pm, which may account for the intimate turnout. The audience is patient and appreciative of Binchy, who reads two extracts from his latest novel, Five Days Apart, published only in the US to date. I’m not sure why it was published only in the US, and whether there are plans to publish it in the UK and Ireland. No one asks. In fact, Muir's questions continue to miss the bullseye throughout the session.

From its starting point as a story of obsession, Binchy explains that Five Days Apart grew into a less melodramatic exploration of the nature of love and friendship. The protagonist, shy and retiring David, gains a social life through his best friend, insouciant charmer Alex. When they fall for the same girl, their friendship is tested to the limit. So far, so mneh.

What I find interesting is Binchy’s insights into relationships and his way of framing them. At one point, during a lyrical passage about Dublin’s financial centre, he describes imbalanced couples with unequal brainpower or sense of hearing (his depiction is more beautifully crafted than that, trust me). It is an unusual way of looking at something and the audience get a little thrill from it. I hope his books are stuffed with that kind of observation.

The interview, however, feels like a series of stock answers that don’t quite match a series of stock questions. Muir admits she asks all writers the same questions and doesn’t veer off course until she enquires, ‘Can we ask about Maeve?’ Binchy displays great patience and gives a crowd-pleasing stock answer. He must be very tired of Auntie Maeve.

Invited to ask questions, the audience have just one. Maybe they need their tea.

Overall it's been an innocuous evening. There are depths to Binchy, but we get just a glimpse. Had Lynch been there, I wonder would we have got even that much.