• Alice McDermott
  • Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • 240 pp.
  • Reviewed by Annabel Davis-Goff
  • September 10, 2013

The author brings her trademark technical dexterity to a novel of Irish-Americans that’s moving but never sentimental.

The most distinguished Irish writers working today are also chroniclers; the elegance of their sentences and the originality of their characters is intertwined with an accurate and valuable record of time and place; what they have seen, and what they remember, becomes both art and history.

The Irish-American novel, if we define it as a novel written by an American of Irish descent who concerns himself with the lives and world of Irish-Americans, has evolved more gradually, and often veers toward the sentimental or the brutal: the sentimental appealing to nostalgia for an imaginary “old country”; the brutal, offering stories of corrupt politicians and priests, or the unseemly and often perverse consequences of guilt-ridden and long-repressed sexuality asserting itself. The role of chronicler has largely fallen to William Kennedy, whose Albany novels record moments of that city’s dark history.

Alice McDermott, in Someone,now quietly writes the history of a time and place; her heroine tells the story of her own life and that of her family, and—like the widening ripples of a circle on water—an account of Irish-American Brooklyn from the early 1930s to a present in which the narrator is no longer connected to the wider world or, consequently, to a specific date.

On the first page of Someone, a character named Pegeen is introduced. It is Pegeen, who begins—and on some level ends—the novel. Before the heart has time to sink at the sentimental implication of the name, we are told that Pegeen’s father is Syrian; soon afterwards, she is dead. At the end of the first chapter we learn that everyone we have met in it, with the exception of Marie, our unassuming heroine, is dead. The chapter sets the tone for the entire novel: modest expectations and no happy endings.

McDermott’s first novel, A Bigamist’s Daughter (1982), is sophisticated in structure, and a good example of E.M. Forster’s separation of the idea of story and plot. The story is simple enough, that of a young woman who is an “editor” at a vanity press; her father was—more than probably, though there is no concrete proof—a bigamist. She has an affair with one of her writers, a seemingly naïve but privileged Southerner, who has written a novel about a bigamist. The plot is far less simple, and bigamy becomes a metaphor for the inability to make a complete commitment, the tendency to commit too easily, a defensive need for deception, and much more. McDermott’s latest novel is a complete contrast in subject and tone to her first, but the sophistication of her structural choices is similar and perhaps even more effective in this brilliant and moving novel. 

Elizabeth, alternately the narrator and the subject of the many-layered A Bigamist’s Daughter, is—although both women are shaped by their family circumstances—the opposite of Marie. Elizabeth is wry and funny: When her widowed mother refocuses her life around service to the Roman Catholic Church, her daughter, requiring some basic parental assistance, remarks, “I felt rather like some mongrel who’d interrupted the meditations of Saint Francis to be let out to pee.”Marie is a real, if quiet, heroine, first seen as an affectionate, plain and short-sighted child who grows up to be a wife and mother who holds to old values, and is more likely to admonish her daughters for humorous — and by contemporary standards, minor — lapses in respect for the church. 

Marie lives by the expectations and values she has inherited, and her gloriously perceptive eye is not influenced by the reflections, or the consolations, of art and literature. Associations with David Copperfield run through the book, but Marie, who over a period of years had failed to finish the novel (she had difficulty keeping track of the story), learns only one practical insight from it: that “a hard-luck childhood could portend a hard-luck life.”

There are no other literary allusions, and no descriptions of beauty. The aesthetic pleasure of this constantly touching but never sentimental book is achieved by technical dexterity. Marie is myopic, and the themes of sight and light are part of a structure so subtle that the conventions of the symmetry are not apparent. Instead, the reader is quietly moved by an utterly decent and affectionate girl, who as a child associated the smell of alcohol with her father, and so goes through life sympathetic to men with alcohol on their breath.

Birth, death, love, loss, faith, pain, are all described in moving understatement in this beautifully written novel. Marie’s painful first love affair, her brother’s conflicted vocation as a priest, the shadow of an Irish past over her mother, the alcohol on her father’s breath - all are precisely, but unsentimentally, described, and rather than an immediate emotional reaction to each circumstance, the reader has lingering and returning thoughts about the novel, its characters and the disappeared world it portrays.  Art and history; the truth of art, the details of memory.

Annabel Davis-Goff is the author of Walled Gardens, an Anglo-Irish family memoir, and of three novels also set in the world of the Anglo-Irish. She is currently writing a book about the publishing and legal history of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and teaches literature at Bennington College.


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