Saturday, March 17, 2012

Love in a Time of Potato Famine: My Dream of You by Nuala O'Faolain

In honor of St. Patrick's Day, I dug back through my review archive and found this report I made on Nuala O'Faolain's prize-winning novel My Dream of You ten years ago.  I also found a series of questions I'd written for Ms. O'Faolain and remembered I had once planned to interview her.  It was around the time of this novel's release in 2001 and, as I recall, she was very busy with publicity and a book tour here in America.  She graciously responded to my email and asked if we could postpone the interview until a later date.  Sure, I said, not a problem.  Sadly, we never had that conversation.  I never followed up and we both got busy--each of us writing our own books (hers were published, mine were not).  O'Faolain was diagnosed with cancer in February 2008 and died four months later.  I'm certain she would have been a wonderfully engaging conversant and I regret not picking up the phone to hear her sparkling candor come through the receiver.

I am not a middle-age woman trying to figure out how, where and why all the good years of sex vanished.  I don’t have hair the color of overcast skies, the corners of my eyes aren’t roosts for a flock of crows, my blood hasn’t been recycled through my body more times than there are stars in heaven.

But for one week, I was all of those things.  For seven days, I slipped into the skin of Kathleen de Burca, the journalist on a passion-quest in Nuala O’Faolain’s debut novel My Dream of You.  I felt the ache in Kathleen’s bones, the stabs to her heart, the squeeze in her lungs as she goes in search of love in the twilight.  Ms. O’Faolain (who bears more than a passing resemblance to Kathleen) is to be commended for causing a still-this-side-of-40 male to so completely inhabit a paper-and-ink character with breasts and menopausal issues.  I know Kathleen.  And, after your 530-page relationship, you will, too—no matter if you’re 20, 70, Catholic, Jewish, or have hair on your chest.

Stories like Kathleen’s are too-easily dismissed with a sniff and eye-roll as “women’s fiction” and are either anointed by Oprah or filmed as a Lifetime Television for Women movie (or both).  But there is more to My Dream of You than meets the bodice-ripping eye.

This is a romance, yes; but it is one that is filled with such elegance, honesty and energy that it quickly ascends to something greater than another drop in the mid-life crisis pool of books.  It is a story for any of us who have grasped at second chances, and prayed our fingers weren’t too slick with nervous sweat.

O’Faolain, a former television producer and writer for The Irish Times also went close to the bone with the character in her first book Are You Somebody?: The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman: herself.  The memoir of growing up in lower-class Ireland was not as tragic-gritty as Frank McCourt’s Angela's Ashes, but it was no less compelling as O’Faolain described the neglect from her alcoholic mother and, later, the years spent trying to find both a career and a love life in male-dominated Irish society.

In Are You Somebody?, she writes, “A woman past the age where she might be contemplated as a sexual partner is hardly seen.  She turns into a silhouette.”

This is the shadow world Kathleen inhabits when we first meet her in My Dream of You.  Most of her journalism career has been spent writing for a travel magazine in London, a job which has allowed her to jet around the globe, always on the run from herself.  When her best friend and colleague dies, Kathleen is suddenly cut adrift.  Nearing fifty, she’s reached the point where she starts to take a long hard look at her perpetually single life, examining past flings and committed relationships with a longing gaze.  We bear with her through scenes of loveless sex—sad, painful episodes which lower her dignity as a woman.  “Make it not too late!” she prays in desperation as she sets off a physical journey to Ireland and a spiritual sojourn to the soul.

She goes to Ireland in search of answers to an 1856 court case, Talbot v. Talbot, which has always intrigued her.  It concerns the alleged adultery between and English landlord’s lonely wife, Marianne, and their Irish servant, Mullan.  During the country's infamous Potato Famine, the two lovers cross class lines in what witnesses describe as a passionate affair.  After being away from the Emerald Isle for thirty years, Kathleen travels to the scene of the crime, Ballygall, and starts poking around the long-cold ashes of the Talbot affair.  But in so doing, she stokes the fires of her own memories and starts wondering, “Is it too late for true love to find me?”

Like A.S. Byatt’s Possession, the book shifts between Kathleen’s investigation and testimonial narratives from the Talbot trial.  Kathleen begins writing her own book about the affair and it’s not hard to make the link between herself and the way she describes the 19th-century lovers: “They must have seemed like luscious fruit to each other.  Their bodies must have ripened on each other.”  Or this particularly sensual paragraph:
The habitat of their passion, where they roamed like two animals on a great plain, was silence. Not perfect silence—there were always the sounds of the household and sounds coming in from the estate. Sheep, penned in a far yard, the creak of turf carts coming in from the bog. But the couple were habitually mute. Except that they panted and grunted when they forgot themselves in each other. Then afterwards there was peace, and silence again. And after that, she lived in a hot dream of him.

The story is given to us in language which barely has any clothes on the words.  The simple language is only occasionally overwrought and just this side of cliché; but most of the sentences flow free as the River Shannon.  There’s an undeniably compelling passion O’Faolain imparts to everything her pen touches.  And I say “pen” rather than “keyboard” because I can only imagine her writing the book’s first draft in longhand—that’s how intimate she makes this reading experience.

Through Marianne and Mullan, Kathleen comes to find her purpose in life—the whys, wherefores and whims of sex; and through her characters, one can guess, O’Faolain reaches conclusions about her own place in the world.  In this way, My Dream of You is a very wide-awake examination of one writer’s life.  This is therapeutic fiction in one of its finest hours.

Is My Dream of You a perfect book (whatever that is)?  Not entirely.  It’s too long for its own good and many pages are squandered on Kathleen returning to the same lovesick conclusions.  But these are easy to forgive when you’ve got such a remarkable character, and an author who generously heaps dollops of herself on every page.  Kathleen lingers long in the memory and it’s not easy to slough off the skin in which O’Faolain has encased the reader—even for us fortysomething males.

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