Nuala O'Faolain -- exorcising Mother

February 02, 2003|By Clarinda Harriss | By Clarinda Harriss,Special to the Sun

Almost There, by Nuala O'Faolain. Riverheard Books. 192 pages. $24.95.

I was of three minds, Like a tree In which there are three blackbirds. That's Wallace Stevens regarding Nuala O'Faolain's latest memoir. I'm of five minds, and I have given them names that could be subtitles of O'Faolain's book.

1. The World's Longest Back Story. Almost There is what led up to and resulted from the publication of The Irish Times columnist O'Faolain's first book. That memoir (Are You Somebody?) made O'Faolain famous. Almost There shows how enormously a literary success can change a lucky writer's life. And also how it feels to be waiting in the wings for one's first network talk-show appearance or to have the host's greeting announce how many men the guest has slept with in her world travels.

2. Travels with Nuala. O'Faolain's ability to evoke locale is uncanny. Passages in Almost There clarify and enrich my occasional-visitor's recollections of Ireland; more remarkably, the book sharpens the New York City I've known all my life. Late in the book she lists dozens of cities, lakes, galleries, coffee shops, hot dog stands, memorials, parks, department stores, bars, lobbies, zoos, etc., her travels have taken her to, each captured in three words, max. You're looking through a master artist's sketch pad. The images haunt the mind.

3. Haunting sentences. Seldom have I slowly reread so many sentences while trying to race though a book at first reading. I had to -- simply to figure out what the writer was (probably) saying. The memoir is as nonchronological and spatially fluid as memory itself. Pronoun reference can be a matter of "guess the antecedent," and syntax is sometimes foreign to an American. However, the ghostly antecedent becomes an opportunity to savor the magic of O'Faolain's remarkable imagery and insights.

4. Sister Tiresia. One such insight is that Ireland is a great country for a woman who can live like a man. Like Tiresias, the Greek seer who experienced being both a woman and a man, O'Faolain has achieved a certain transgendering. A woman whose heterosexual exploits made her an Irish legend, she opens Almost There by recounting the agonized breakup of her15-year relationship with a woman. Apparently her segue to lesbian love (and back) was seamless.

She's "male" in another way, too. Her writing has earned her enough cash to live alone, and well, on several continents; to travel wherever and in whatever company she chooses; above all, not to be a mother. Her horror of motherhood stems from her own mother's transgendered flaw: alcoholism.

"Exorcising Mother" is the book's ultimate theme and the meaning of the title. O'Faolain reflects that the Irish sickness is drunkenness in a man, anger in a woman. In this, O'Faolain is all woman.

5. I'll Show You Mine. Almost There includes letters she received from readers of Are You Somebody? Why, she wonders, would readers send her such intimate vignettes? She suggests it's the desire for some stranger to witness that they actually exist. But I suspect that O'Faolain's marvelous storytelling simply invites other storytellers to respond in kind, or try to.

Infuriated by O'Faolain's hypervivid account of how jealous she was of a lover's 8-year-old daughter, I realized she had reawakened the rage I felt when a man once showed the same jealousy toward my young son.

So. "Dear Nuala O'Faolain: You don't know me, but ... "

Clarinda Harriss is chair of the Towson University English Department. She has published three collections of poetry and contributed to two scholarly works on poetry. Her work appears in many magazines. She edits and directs BrickHouse Books Inc., Maryland's oldest continuously publishing small press.

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