Because Christmas is coming, and because you’ve been good (except for that one thing I won’t mention), I have a present for you here, a recommendation of a very nice novel. There is still time for you to buy this for yourself for Christmas, if you believe you deserve it, or you might buy it for someone else who you can borrow it from.
The novel is My Dream of You, by Nuala O’Faolain, an Irish writer, and the book is partly, but only partly, about the history of Ireland. Irish history is brought in as the modern protagonist of the book, Kathleen, tries to learn what happened to a possible love affair that occurred during the famine in the late 1840s, a time when a million people starved to death.
So we’re starting our discussion with oppression, starvation, and falling in love. These three tragedies are common motifs in literature. I once talked with a friend who had the fairly unsavory aspiration to become a critic of literature, and she said something (from lack of memory I’m forced to paraphrase, i.e. make stuff up) about why writers keep writing when everything has been written about already.
OK, other than landing on Mars, pretty much everything has been. One answer might be that human experience has a billion subtle permutations, and if you pay attention to the subtlety, each time is different. My Dream of You is also not about Irish history, but about the life of Kathleen and how many ways she has screwed up, how many mistakes she has made and—if you are normal and honest—about how she is just like you. She has reached middle age alone and wonders, like most people as they reach middle age, how she came to be at this point and why so many things did not work out as she expected. If you haven’t wondered that, it’s because you are still young.
One aspect of the novel, and background to much that happens, concerns how Kathleen deals with her family, including her father, who is adamant about being Irish, and her brother, who never left the village where they grew up (he goes once to a Thai restaurant and asks if they have dishes with potatoes). The author O’Faolain also made Kathleen an international travel writer, which then contrasts so starkly with the provincialism she was running from when she left home.
So it’s all been written about before, except until this book there was never a Kathleen thinking about Irish history and her own history and falling in love with the wrong person at the wrong moment. There has never before been a Kathleen who abandoned her home country in horror at the abuse her mother suffered from living in Ireland. Kathleen vows never to set foot in the country again, yet she goes back in pursuit of the historical love story from the famine times.
The language in this book is beautiful, and as a writer myself I stopped over and over (I read books pretty slowly) to admire O’Faolain’s phrasing. Look at the use of both color and light in this sentence: “And the clear light that molded the old fields like a loving hand stroking them—fields that were turquoise up at the top of the hill and deepened into jade-green in their sweep down to the glittering bay.”
The sentence begins with light and ends with reflected light on the glittering bay. In between O’Faolain invokes two unusual colors, turquoise and jade-green, to describe the landscape. In spite of Kathleen’s ambivalence toward Ireland, the land itself is described beautifully and as being shaped by a “loving” hand.
Look as well at these two examples where the author brings an unusual perspective to seeing people:
[a rich woman] “Her forearm was so faultless that I decided that rich people are actually less hairy than poor people…”
[wives dealing with their husbands coming home from work] “They had to pull themselves upright, like tired waitresses going back on duty after a break, when the husbands turned up.”
In addition to skilled attention to language and rich character development, My Dream of You has layers of the past woven into the story, along with the occasional commentary, a sign of a mature writer who is bold enough to let ideas color the writing and enrich the story. It can work if you’re the kind of person who likes a rich layered story with turquoise hillsides.