The Disenchanted Widow

  • Christina McKenna
  • Amazon Publishing
  • 438 pp.

A sometimes gentle, sometimes not so gentle spoof of late-20th-century rural Irish life.

It is 1981 in Northern Ireland; the IRA is terrorizing the countryside. Some of its imprisoned members have gone on a hunger strike. Things are bad; Belfast is on tenterhooks; everyone waiting for the lighted match that will ignite the political gas tank of British Rule. And this is where the plot of Christina McKenna’s new novel begins.

Bessie Halstone and her young confectioner’s-sugar-addicted son escape Belfast in her Morris Traveller jalopy when she learns that an IRA thug named “the Dentist” is out looking for her. The Dentist has earned his sobriquet for his maniacal use of cavity filling drills and the like as implements of torture. The Dentist is unhappy — to put it mildly — because Bessie’s recently deceased petty gangster of a husband, named Packie, not only ripped him off by stealing the loot from a robbery the Dentist had commissioned from him and his mates, but also neglected to share with his wife exactly where he had hidden said loot before he met his maker. 

So Bessie and son get out of Belfast, only for their car to break down outside the rural village of Tailorstown.

Bessie manages to occupy a small vacant cottage near town where she meets and interacts with many of the characters (and I mean that in both senses of the word) that populate the village and this story. There’s the parish priest for whom she works cleaning and cooking, who is at the same time more and less than he seems. There is also a mix and match assortment of middle-aged-to-elderly busybodies, some of them without a pause button anywhere near their mouths, and one in particular (a peeping Tom) who fancies both Bessie and dressing in women’s underwear. There is also a hero named Lorcan for Bessie’s plight. He is an artist, also recently from Belfast, who is back in his hometown to visit his aged Mum, and at the same time to finish counterfeiting a painting for the Dentist’s presumed sale to some unsuspecting buyer. The author, who is also an artist, describes Lorcan’s painting skills with authority.

There are at least two ways to read this story. One is as an Irish prose version of an Italian opera buffa — a tragicomic tale with emphasis on the bumbling comic. The other is as a satire, along the lines, say, of Henry Fielding’s classic novel Tom Jones. (The book’s title, The Disenchanted Widow, even sounds like something from the 17th or 18th centuries.) Once into the story, I selected the satire path, a sometimes gentle and sometimes not so gentle spoof of rural Irish life. In that way, I think, the booked worked best.

This is a dialogue-heavy narrative; a good bit of it designed to mimic village patois, wrapped around basic Irish brogue. While I am far from an authority on this sort of slang, there were parts that did read (and sound) Irish Brogue authentic. Sentence in point: Barkin’ Bob, as he’s called, trying to off load some inventory from his horse drawn peddler’s cart, addressing Bessie’s son Herkie (short for Hercules) “Wid yer mammy want to boy a bucket. A basin, a froyin’-pan tae froy her sausages of a marnin.” With due deference to the author’s clear talents, to my ear, at least, some sounded a bit tinny: “till” for “to” and “Amerikay” for “America.” Lorcan’s aunt, who lives in Miami, writes letters to her Tailorstown sister in an American slang that reads more Montana cowboy than South Beach sunbather. Small quibble, because there is laugh-out-loud dialogue in this story, well worth the price of admission.

The story wraps up nicely in the end in an all’s well that ends well fashion (like a comic opera?).  I found the characters nicely drawn and colorful, with the possible exception of the Dentist. His role in the story serves mainly to kick-start the plot and to nail down the ending. Still, I wish the author had done a bit more with him. On the other hand, I may unfairly be comparing the Dentist to Laurence Olivier’s torturing, evil Dr. Mengele character, who uses the tools of his former dental profession to torture Dustin Hoffman in the 1970s film The Marathon Man, based on William Goldman’s novel.  

All in all, this is an enjoyable book, one you won’t regret picking up to read.

Ron Liebman is the author of several books, including the novels Death by Rodrigo and Jersey Law (Simon & Schuster).

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