It would seem that Irish journalist Nuala O'Faolain has come full circle. The conclusion of her acclaimed memoir "Are You Somebody" (1998 ) found her believing that she was, indeed, somebody despite the scars of an unhappy childhood and the effects of a male dominated society. Now, with the writing of "Almost There," a second memoir, she relapses to nobody status again.
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"...I believed myself a failure....., " Ms. O'Faolain writes. "I hadn't acquired any of the usual rewards of the middle of life - I didn't have anyone to love or to love me. I had no child, no other achievement, no money. I quietly drank a bit too much wine every night."
These words follow the break-up of a 14 year relationship with Nell, an Irish activist and feminist. Advice from a psychologist friend was not able to salvage their partnership, thus the author now in her middle fifties is alone. "The house became more silent every day as Nell's departure drained the life from it."
Brooding over her loss, the author despairs of ever maintaining a loving relationship, as her earlier liaisons had also ended sadly. With little interest in people she spends the next seven Christmas seasons alone. Solace is found in reading, classical music, an adopted mongrel pup, and, of course, her work.
There are bright spots in this memoir. Remembered with pleasure are days spent writing at a bucolic camp near the Delaware River; it was there that she slept in a room "scented by pines." Recalled with equal relish and a modicum of astonishment is her time spent in Manhattan where she immediately felt at home among the varieties of skin colors and languages. She is there on unpaid leave of absence to write her first novel, "My Dream Of You."
"The whole world is vibrant with the heroism of people who have had to start anew," she writes, "and Manhattan is the greatest of all the cities created by such people."
She returned to her native Belfast for a time where she wrote a series of columns for the Irish Times. She is shocked to find Catholics being murdered every day, and relieved when the dead body she sees a few yards from her front door "turned out to be not the latest in the sectarian sequence but something to do with drugdealing."
Throughout "Almost There" is a recurring theme: the search for love. Following Nell Ms. O'Faolain embarks on an affair with Joseph, an unlikely paramour if there ever was one. They meet in a pub in northwest Ireland; he is an ordinary older man with silver hair, a married truck driver who left school at 11, and found no need to be literate.
She confesses to being "mad about him" for over four years. During this time he might disappear for months at a time, and never managed to learn how to spell her name.
Joseph is succeeded by John, a Brooklyn lawyer whom she met through Match.com, an online dating service. She is now 61, and he is "a balding, bright-eyed man with a wide, sensitive mouth in a heartshaped face as lively as an elf's." He is also twice divorced, and the father of an 8-year-old daughter. Of her late-in-life new love she remarks that it is a time when "good things matter to their fullest extent, because you know exactly how rare they are."
But rather than accepting his child, Ms. O'Faolain feels resentment and is fiercely jealous of the time that John spends with his daughter. She explains her feelings as a "condition that could ruin my life. Sourness. Meanness. Begrudging children what they have just because we didn't have it." She concludes that there is no closing accounts with parents.
The author, as many will remember, came from a family of nine; a family riven by her journalist father's indiscretions and her mother's alcohol induced indifference. Regrettably, maternal neglect continues to color Ms. O‘Faolain's personal and professional life. And much of the material found in "Are You Somebody" is revisited in this follow-up memoir. She reiterates the price to be paid for speaking out in a country that "put the lid on things." For the Irish, she writes, "Silence was the defensive strategy of a people who did not believe situations can be changed and did not imagine they could ever get away from each other...."
And there again is the crux of the matter: the belief that she will forever be haunted by her mother. With the book's closing lines the author paints an imaginary reunion. Her mother is sitting on a barstool, and moves over to make room for her daughter on the next stool. Just as she does that Ms. O'Faolain turns her back and walks out the door.
- Gail Cooke
The review of this Book prepared by The Snide Gail Cooke