Emerald Bile

“Try to pack everything in,” the heroine of Nuala O’Faolain’s mammoth first novel tells herself, paraphrasing Keats’s famous advice to Shelley to “load every rift with ore.”

It’s clearly a recommendation that the author herself takes to heart. O’Faolain, a popular columnist for the Irish Times, created a sensation with her best-selling memoir Are You Somebody?, which managed to pack in very many things indeed: a wounded personal history about a tragically dysfunctional family; a bleak condemnation of Ireland itself, where, she suggests, entrenched patriarchy and powerful Roman Catholicism continue to make life a medieval hell for women (“I think unconsciousness was the condition that allowed the society I grew up in to exist”); and a hard-eyed and unembarrassed account of one independent woman’s struggles with sex and love and, eventually, childlessness.

The hard-knocks Irish narrative, with its familiar cast of characters – the long-suffering mother, the hard-drinking, good-for-nothing father with the redemptive charm, the fiercely observant child who grows up to be the writer – has, of course, been committed to countless memoirs and novels that unabashedly target the heart. Those of us who sniffled through A Tree Grows in Brooklyn back in sixth grade are the same people who have made the McCourt brothers very rich men. What made O’Faolain’s memoir so remarkable was its utter unsentimentality – the way it aimed so resolutely at the head. Or, I can’t help thinking, at women’s heads: “Most memoirists in Ireland write about their fathers in a sweetly one-dimensional way, as if there were no unconscious” is not a sentence likely to occur to a male writer.

Not surprisingly, tragically dysfunctional families, sharp-eyed feminist critiques of contemporary Irish society, and coolly unsentimental descriptions of middle-aged women having (and thinking about) sex are the principal elements you find in O’Faolain’s novel, My Dream of You. But if this story of a middle-aged Irishwoman journalist’s confrontation with both personal and national demons sounds suspiciously familiar, there’s enough real, imaginative fiction here to keep you glued to the book.

What keeps you engrossed is the fact that the novel interweaves the contemporary bits – the bits that sound awfully like what you already know about O’Faolain and her opinions – with an irresistible mystery. Kathleen, who fled her impoverished Irish home for London in her early twenties, is a successful 49-year-old travel writer whose life of “perfect nothingness,” spent alternating between the exotic destinations she writes vacuously about (“Sri Lanka: Isle of Spices”) and a grubby basement apartment, clearly reflects a desire to obliterate a painful past. As, indeed, does her penchant for meaningless and often degrading quickies. It’s partly because she realizes that her whole life has been marked by a “misunderstanding of passion” that Kathleen decides, after her gay American best friend, Jimmy, suddenly dies, to quit her job, return to Ireland, and devote herself to a new and more substantial kind of writing project: a book about a notorious nineteenth-century scandal involving an affair between the wife of an English landlord and her Irish servant. (The scandal really took place: O’Faolain quotes all of the original source material in italics, to distinguish her imaginative reconstructions from the official record.)

A persistent preoccupation for O’Faolain and so many other Irish writers is the inescapability of the past – the way the past continues to write the present, politically, socially, economically, emotionally. (Alcoholism is both a real and a symbolic expression of this in a good deal of Irish writing.) In this book, O’Faolain’s intertwining of present and past allows her to confront this issue in an interesting and genuinely novelistic way. Whatever Kathleen’s hopes that the divorce case will provide distraction from her grief and the emptiness of her life, the struggle to get to the bottom of those long-dead, rather gothic passions – did Marianne Talbot really commit adultery with William Mullan? Or was she framed by her cruel, inheritance-hungry husband? – forces her to come to terms with her own long-buried family traumas, not least of which is the horrific death of her mother, whose own fantasies of “passion” weakened and then destroyed her. Most strikingly, because the scandal occurred at the height of the potato famine, the dire specter of Anglo-Irish politics hovers over the narrative even when it’s at its most seemingly “romantic.” (Some of the novel’s most memorable passages come not only in the grim descriptions of the famine and of England’s criminal indifference to it but in subtler though no less vivid reminders of humiliations that Kathleen is forced, as an Irishwoman living in England, to submit to. Soon after reaching London, she realizes she has to hide her accent in order to get served in a pub, or to get a decent apartment.)

Kathleen may misunderstand passion, but O’Faolain certainly doesn’t. I can’t remember the last time I read a novel that so eloquently describes the erotic dilemma of middle age – the way that hunger for sexual and emotional satisfaction, unabated by time, intersects with a shocked recognition that the body itself changes, or even fails. “When I was young,” Kathleen wryly muses at one point, “I took the fabric of myself for granted.” This, of course, is a subject that’s been dealt with in many novels; what makes O’Faolain’s stand out is the journalistic eye for detail that etches Kathleen’s dilemma into your memory. The narrative foil to the story of Marianne and Mullan’s affair is an ongoing affair between Kathleen herself and a genial, somewhat older married man called Shay, whom she meets on a ferry. In one amazing passage, Kathleen realizes that Shay has taken out his dentures in order to give her greater satisfaction during oral sex. As Kathleen gets closer to the complicated truth of what actually went on between the nineteenth-century lovers, she also gets closer to having to decide whether to become, in essence, Shay’s official mistress, putting herself at his disposal, or to remain independent – and, most likely, loveless and celibate as time continues to pass her by and her body continues to disappoint her.

As gripping as the erotic-mystery plot is, and as nuanced as Kathleen’s story is, there are a good many awkwardnesses here; they often make you wish the book were about 150 pages slimmer. O’Faolain the columnist can’t resist a soapbox, and you wish an editor had cut some of the angry mini-lectures about politics or abortion; she makes her points about these subjects better when she sticks to writerly means (for instance, a brief aside about “the terrified women at the check-ins in Dublin Airport on their way to England for secret abortions”). Flashbacks are very awkwardly introduced – things like “Spot reminded me of the day we heard that Jimmy was dead” make you wince – and certain characters, not least poor dead Jimmy himself, are flat and all too obviously foils of one sort or another. And the triumphant emotional summing-up at the end is way too aromatherapeutic for serious fiction (“And the way to do that is to see the parents – and to see ourselves – as precious. Just for having existed!”). But overall, My Dream of You is a strong and absorbing work in which past and present are beautifully tied up in the moment when Kathleen reaches her utterly right decision – and, even more, by the time you reach the book’s surprising final lines, in a subtle but striking narrative sleight-of-hand that may be the most genuinely feminist thing I’ve seen in a novel in years. O’Faolain may pack too much into this book, but there’s a lot more gold here than ore.

While complaining about cruel absentee English landlords, one of the characters in O’Faolain’s book caustically refers to the infamous Lord Lucan, an aristocrat who disappeared from London in 1974 after allegedly beating his children’s nanny to death. (He apparently thought she was their mother.) Lucan’s crime, and its vividly imagined aftermath, is the Maguffin for the latest of Muriel Spark’s minimalist and rather caustic studies of English mores. (The 82-year-old veteran’s others include The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, A Far Cry From Kensington, and the terrifying, traplike Symposium.) If My Dream of You is overstuffed, Aiding and Abetting is probably a bit underfed, a high-concept piece about a favorite Sparkian theme – the moral implications of falsehood – that’s more sketched-in than fleshed-out. (This book, like O’Faolain’s, depends on meaningful parallelism: The Paris shrink whom Lucan approaches to assuage his guilt is herself a fugitive from justice living under a false identity.) But if the new book lacks the rigor of some of Spark’s earlier work, there’s so much devilish humor here that you don’t really care. “And how did you become a priest?” one typically shifty Spark character asks another here. “Well, I hid in a monastery for a time,” the other blandly replies. However deliciously inauthentic Spark’s cast of characters is, she herself, after four decades, remains the real thing.

My Dream of You
By Nuala O’Faolain.
Riverhead Books; 500 pages; $25.95.
Aiding and Abetting
By Muriel Spark.
Doubleday; 176 pages; $21.00.

Emerald Bile