‘Are You Somebody?’ by Nuala O’Faolain

O'faolain

1998 edition, 356 pages

A few years back this book was on the bestseller list week after week.  I remember at the time picking it up, seeing the blurb from Frank McCourt, then putting it down again. Although I had been transfixed by McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, I didn’t feel that I needed to read another Irish Misery Memoir. And so, some twenty or so years later, I came to Are You Somebody? as a bookgroup selection. And yes, there’s the feckless father, the despondent mother, the poverty, the pregnancies and the power of the Catholic Church – just as I anticipated there would be-  but there’s so much more. I just loved this book.

The subtitle of some editions of this book calls it an ‘accidental memoir’. Even though Nuala O’Faolain was very well known in Ireland, especially for her newspaper columns, I suspect I’m not alone in saying that I had never heard of her here in Australia.  But for her readers in Ireland, as elsewhere in the world, the relationship between a newspaper columnist and his/her readers is a strange one. There is a veneer of companionship and familiarity but it is all controlled on the author’s side. As a reader, you feel as if you know them, but you don’t.  And an editorial reshuffle or lost contract can sever the connection forever.

This book was intended to be a collection of her newspaper columns. She was asked to write an autobiographical introduction, but it grew beyond that.  In the ‘extended’ edition I read, roughly half of the resulting book is her introduction, followed by an ‘afterword’ reflecting on the response to the publication of the first edition, and the rest is her columns, arranged by theme.

This book really suffered for the lack of a good glossary or footnotes. As an Irish ‘personality’, writer and academic, she is enmeshed in Irish literary society and she name-drops liberally. As she becomes increasingly enchanted with the recovery of the Irish language, she also cites phrases and sentences that are not translated.  I didn’t ever lose the sense that I was reading about a different culture in a different country, (which, transposed, means that Irish readers would be strongly affirmed in their sense that this was their story). I had to google many of the references to then-current events in the newspaper columns. Of course, written almost 20 years ago, events have moved on, most particularly with the recent referendum on abortion, and the rise and fall (and recovery again?) of the Celtic Tiger economy.

Nuala was one of nine living children; her father was a gossip columnist who anglicized his name to ‘Terry O’Sullivan’. He was serially unfaithful and often absent. Her mother was an alcoholic and money was tight. Nuala escaped this life through education and the jobs that became available through the opening up of media opportunities, but underlying all this was her assumption that she would marry and have children. She never did. She had a string of liaisons, often with married men, and looking back at her life acknowledges that had she had a child when she was younger, she would have been a poor mother.  It shocked her to realize that she was inadvertently repeating her mother’s own self-destructiveness.

I found it somewhat difficult to get into her memoir. It is very well and artistically written, at a far more abstract level than her newspaper columns, and while it moves chronologically, there is a fair bit of movement back and forth in the early chapters. But by the middle of the book, and particularly at the end of her introduction and through her ‘afterword’, there was a shift. I felt stripped bare by her candour. This is a middle-aged woman, looking back without sentiment, at her choices, her body, her relationships, her sense of self. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything so honest.

I’m not alone in thinking that. As she explains in her ‘afterword’ she was deluged with responses – probably many from other middle-aged women like me. This raw directness is even more apparent in an interview she gave just a few weeks before she died, after receiving a diagnosis of cancer that gave her mere weeks to live.  The interview comes with trigger warnings, as it certainly needed, because I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything so articulate, so bleak, so honest, from someone so close to death.  It is one of the most searing interviews I have ever heard: absolutely unforgettable.

I loved this book. I am of the right age and the right demographic to love it, I suppose. Perhaps it’s just as well that it took me twenty years to find it.  It will be right up there for my best reads of 2018.

Sourced from: CAE as a bookgroup read

My rating: 10/10

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