Book review, Literary criticism

My Dream of You by Nuala O’Faolain (noola o fway lorn)

Nuala O'Faolain

Nuala O’Faolain

I loved this book!

After the international success of O’Faolain’s memoir Are You Somebody? this novel, her first, was published in 2001 and in a brief Afterward she acknowledges “splendid energetic advice” from fellow Irish writer Colm Toibin who recently opined that

“… in autobiographical writing your [the writer’s] job is to create illusion, to work with rhythm and image and detail to make the reader feel that whatever is on the page matters and must have happened.”

I would venture to say that this also applies to writing in the first person, memoir or fiction, since the first person point of view is meant to make the reader believe the protagonist is also the writer. I recently complained that in The Cast Iron Shore, Linda Grant’s debut novel, that I reviewed on this blog recently (posted January 27), Grant failed her first person POV responsibilities by inadvertantly creating a disconnect between the protagonist and the writer: they seemed like two different people.

O’Faolain does not make the same mistake. Although a novel (fiction), My Dream of You reads like a memoir, feels like a memoir; so skilfully does O’Faolain make you believe, using “rhythm and image and detail” that her story actually happened to her. Having read her first memoir there is a lot of O’Faolain’s past in Kathleen’s but autobiography and fiction are interwoven seemlessly. How do I know this? I cared about her.

Kathleen de Burca is an Irish travel writer fast approaching fifty, and with a waist to match, who travels the world, usually with her best friend, an gay American man called Jimmy, writing travel copy for her boss, and also close friend, Alex. These two men, and staff in the office in London, serve as her family, since she has all but abandoned hers, and her country, many years before. Then there is her boyfriend, Hugo, a law student, who interests her in a divorce case from the annals of Irish history: the young wife of an English aristocrat, on a forlorn Irish estate in the middle of nowhere, is accused of infidelity with her husband’s Irish groom, a very common man. In those days, the 1850’s, a divorce needed an act of parliament so the event is well documented although from a very English point of view. The wife is chastised, forsaken, deprived of her young daughter, and locked up in an asylum where she inevitably goes mad.

Kathleen is intrigued and fascinated by this tragedy and when Jimmy, her moral compass, suddenly dies she takes leave of her job (Hugo, the boyfriend, she betrayed and lost) and travels to Ireland to, maybe, write a book about this young wife and her passion for a comman man.

The book has three narrative arcs: Kathleen’s journey to Ireland, her adventures, and the brief reunion with her siblings and their families; her memories of her arrogant, distant, and emotionally violent father, her deeply unhappy and useless mother, and her friends and lovers; and the story from the 1850s of Marianne and her affair with the lowly William Mullen. Yes, there is a book within the book.

She thinks she is going to Ireland to research a story about someone else’s passion but what she actually does is confront passion in her own life and what she discovers is not what she expected.

The writing of the Marianne’s story (in the third person) begins confidently and the affair with Mullen is handled expertly: O’Faolain makes the reader understand how intense physical attraction can operate outside the realms of reason; but Kathleen discovers another document that proports to prove that … well, I don’t want to spoil it for you. There is here the flavour of a mystery to be solved.

O’Faolain’s literary skills are put to good use as she weaves the first and third narratives into a shared ending which also ends the book itself. Very satisfying.

My Dream of You is about love, sex, family, and aging, and it contains one of the best descriptions I have ever read of female friendship – how it works – and how emotional love with a woman can be far more rewarding and long-lasting than sexual love with a man. Mind you, Kathleen has a lot of experience with sexual love with men and she understands, and shows, that passion is far more complex and evolutionary than romantic books make out; and she comes to realize that her relationship with her body is also a part of the ‘passion’ equation and far from what she would like it to be, or thought it was. She is, or was, a beautiful woman and there are magic passages where a beautiful woman talks about being beautiful, without pride or sentiment, and when she believed it and when she didn’t. This is unusual stuff.

Nuala O’Faolain was engaged once but never married, had a fifteen year relationship with the Irish journalist, Nell McCarthy, but spent her latter years with a New York lawyer, John Low-Beer. She was diagnosed with metastatic cancer in 2008. Hugo Hamilton, whose memoir The Speckled People I recently reviewed on this blog (posted February 10), was a friend of O’Faolain’s and his 2014 novel Every Single Minute is a fictionalised retelling of a trip he took with the very ill O’Faolain to Berlin just before she died (May 9 2008).

She wrote two volumes of memoir Are You Somebody: The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman (1996), and Almost There: The Onward Journey of a Dublin Woman (2003); another novel published posthumously in 2009 Best Love, Rosie; and a ‘history with commentary’ The Story of Chicago May (2005). Chicago May was the nickname of Mary Ann Duignan, an Irish criminal, who became famous in America, France and Britain in the beginning of the twentieth century.

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