My Dream of You, by Nuala O'Faolain

O'Faolain is the author of the well-regarded memoir, Are You Somebody? I haven't read it yet but will. Her prose is gorgeous, absorbing. I can't remember when I last lost myself in a novel as I did in this one.

My Dream of You is another novel about a woman who journeys far from her native Ireland. Kathleen de Burca is a middle-aged travel writer based in London who, when not scouring the world for material for her articles, lives in a dark and dismal basement flat off Euston Road. Where she really feels at home, though, is the small office on the top floor of a Victorian building “right up under the slates”, with its big window looking out over the rooftops of London and the green of the linden trees in the square below.

Kathleen shares the office with Jimmy, her fellow writer and best friend, Roxy the secretary who fills the window with Busy Lizzies and geraniums, and their boss Alex, whose constant presence and meticulous consistency grounds them all. Kathleen and Jimmy are so attuned to each other that they carry on elliptical dialogues of gestures and code words that baffle Alex completely. The two of them come up with off-the-wall ideas for articles (reminding me of the bizarre tours suggested in The Biographer's Tale). At Christmas, Jimmy takes her home to his family in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, where being gay isn't half so bad as not being a jock. Kathleen does not take him to Ireland. In fact, she hasn't been back since boarding the ferry at 20, carrying away her anger and tears.

Although confident and assured while exploring foreign cities, Kathleen is curiously passive when it comes to men. She reminds me of some women I knew in the first flush of the sexual revolution in the 1960s who seemed to feel obliged to sleep with any man who asked. However, Kathleen's behavior seems unbelievable now when we know so much about HIV and other STDs. Yet so much rings true: her recklessness, her lack of concern for herself, her belief that going to bed with a man is the only way to truly know him. Being in the body is for her being alive.

When a sudden loss throws her world into disarray, Kathleen takes refuge in the idea of researching an old court case from the 1850s, just after the worst of the Hunger. Richard Talbot, a wealthy Anglo-Irish landlord, sought a divorce from his wife Marianne on the grounds of adultery with a servant. A note at the beginning of the book tells us that the excerpts from the Talbot Judgment are quoted from the actual Talbot divorce case.

The case has interested Kathleen for years, ever since her first love, Hugo, casually handed her a copy of the Judgment. What fascinates her is the larger picture of a young, pampered Englishwoman taking up with a rough Irish stablehand. Did he even speak English? During this time when landlords were evicting their Irish tenants wholesale and razing their cottages, whole villages were emptied, the strong emigrating, the weak dying, and the few survivors dug into holes in the ground for homes, out by the bogs. Within this larger picture of the relationship between their two countries, the image of a sweet and enduring love that emerges from the legal papers seems to Kathleen worth pursuing. She abandons her job and goes to Ireland to research what she hopes will become a book.

Aside from the sheer beauty of her prose, what O'Faolain does so brilliantly is to work in scenes from the past so that they become a seamless part of the narrative. Knowing where to place parts of the backstory, how much to reveal at one time, what transitions to use to ease readers in and out of the past: many writers, including me, struggle with these issues. Yet O'Faolain pulls it all together, seemingly without effort, dipping back at just the right moment to give us tales of Hugo, adventures with Jimmy, Kathleen's mother, and what went wrong with Alex. Every time I go back and try to analyse how she does it, I get caught up in the story again, enchanted, engrossed.

Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin

Toibin is one of my book club's favorite authors. We've read The Master and before that The Heather Blazing which I picked up in a used tools and books sale in a small town in England. We are impressed with his versatility, but what we really love is his ability to pack so much meaning and emotion into a single scene, a single gesture. We selected his most recent novel for October, a safe choice I thought until I read it. Then I feared that this unassuming story of a young woman who emigrates from Ireland to the U.S. in the 1950s would not provide much fodder for discussion. However, it prompted one of our liveliest and most sustained discussions.

Eilis Lacey lives in a small town with her widowed mother and older sister Rose. At 30, the lovely and self-confident Rose works as a bookkeeper at a local mill and plays golf with her many friends. Eilis herself is taking accounting courses and is obviously quite smart but held back by the limited employment opportunities in town. Rose conspires with Father Flood, visiting from New York, to arrange for transportation, lodging and a job in Brooklyn for her younger sister. Faced with leaving her home and friends and the life she has always assumed she would have, Eilis is miserable but complies.

This setup for her life in the New World contains what I saw as the main flaws in the book. First, whenever the slightest hint of a problem or conflict arises, a solution immediately presents itself. Second, everyone, even people who don't know her, go out of their way to help her: the priest, her cabinmate on the ship, her landlady in New York. Third, Eilis herself seems passive, allowing other people to make the major decisions in her life, not just Rose, but her boyfriend in New York, her supervisor, Father Flood.

Many in the book club loved the story, one saying that it was the kind of book she used to read, that made her love reading: a linear narrative with one point of view and a slow pace. “No bling” as she put it. He lets the story tell itself. It's true that we've read a number of more or less successful experimental novels lately. However, I disagree with my friend. I think that in spite of its traditional format, Brooklyn is a very experimental novel. It seems to me that Toibin has challenged himself to write about an ordinary young woman leading a life that—outside of her journey to America—is remarkably uneventful, and still make it an interesting, readable story. He succeeds. One person mentioned that nowadays when authors are steeped in Chekhov, we expect every plot point to be significant, but life isn't like that.

Others in the book club talked about how much they liked Eilis. She has a moral compass which gives her strength in spite of her apparent passivity. She is not judgmental in a time when people in the U.S. were very judgmental. She stays true to herself and does the right thing, such as taking a new boarder to the dance. One person suggested that her apparent passivity is really just the way life has of turning you one way or another. A different person pointed out that most of the people in this book don't actually talk to each other; they don't say the important things. Eilis doesn't tell her mother and Rose that she wants to stay. Rose doesn't share her own plans and problems with Eilis. Choosing not to talk about things was only too common in those pre-let-it-all-hang-out days.

Where I most felt a hole in the book was the lack of conflict. Whenever a difficulty arises, such as a locked bathroom door, someone provides a solution. Gifts fall into Eilis's lap: the first man she meets turns out to be Mr. Right; his family loves her even though they are not Irish; all potential roadblocks dissolve. Conflicts that could have generated entire books in themselves—integrating the store where she works, a suggestion of sexual harassment—are no big deal and immediately dropped. Everybody loves her. Is it really possible to have so charmed a life?

Without conflict a character doesn't change, and indeed while her outward appearance changes, Eilis is the same person at the end as in the beginning. So why did everyone like the book so much? It is a good read; Toibin's marvelous prose made me want to read just one more paragraph, one more chapter. We like spending time with Eilis. One of our members, an emigrant herself, talked of how true to life the description of the emigrant experience is, particularly the way when you are in one world, you have no connection with the other world. The slower pace and lack of big scenes made us more aware of subtle successes, such as a scene in a bookstore where Eilis is overwhelmed by the number of books, and the brilliant, understated portrayal of the first two women of color to enter the store. Middle-aged, glamorous, wearing cream-colored woolen coats, they chat with each other, never looking directly at the salespeople. They have the same self-sufficient dignity and integrity that Eilis has.

Toibin still manages to create tension, even without apparent conflicts. The unspoken truths add tension. Also, at any moment her life could go either way. I guess I was the only one who was a bit disappointed, but I applaud Toibin's accomplishment. The book is loving portrayal of a person and a time, all the rough edges smoothed away, nostalgic without being sentimental.

The Biographer’s Tale, by A.S. Byatt

This is not the book for a casual reader looking for a good yarn. As with most of Byatt’s books, this extended rumination on the art of biography repays thoughtful attention and rereading. Admittedly, I am occasionally an inattentive reader, but it is only on this, my second reading, that the book begins to yield up its treasures.

It opens as Phineas G. Nanson realizes that he cannot bear to continue his graduate work in postmodern literary theory. He needs facts, things, not semiotic theories picking away at the veins of intentional and unintentional meanings underlying words and phrases, most of which come to seem an imposition of the analyst’s privileged thoughts on those of the writer.

Uncertain what to do next, he consults a professor, one of the heads of the department, Ormerode Goode, who suggests he read Scholes Destry-Scholes’s three-volume biography of Sir Elmer Bole. Nanson marvels at the breadth of knowledge that Destry-Scholes attains in order to—literally and figuratively—follow in Bole’s footsteps, reading everything that Bole read, going everywhere that Boles went, mastering languages, becoming an expert in Byzantine mosaics, tulip cultivation, and Madagascan lemurs.

Elmer Bole himself devoted at least part of his life to following a 17th century Turkish traveler, Evliya Chelebi, even taking on Evliya’s nickname, Siyyah, the Traveler, thus opening an intriguing hall of mirrors of endless reflections. We are never able to identify the ur-life that started this endless trail of study and imitation. Nanson determines to write a biography of Scholes Destry-Scholes and, like his subject, he plans to read everything Destry-Scholes read, go everywhere, and so on. “But no string has an end. Like spider-silk unreeling.” Therefore, Nanson thinks that he will be satisfied—thrilled—to add a few footnotes, a clarifying tidbit based on more recent science to Destry-Scholes’s storehouse of knowledge.

Byatt’s book is short on story and long on jumbled snippets of scholarship as Nanson discovers fragmented research notes on three historical figures, presumably in preparation for writing a joint biography. As Nanson struggles to order and understand these fragments, we are given them intact to make of them what we will, just as we were given chunks of transcripts and stories, and even Frederica’s cut-up journals in earlier books. The mind struggles to hold all the disparate bits and invent a narrative to tie them together, all the while wondering if it is just a fool’s game, like Destry-Scholes’s niece spending hours comparing his collection of marbles to the list of their names, trying to determine which name belongs to which marble.

Such a style of writing reflects our frenetic and fractured world, its hyperlinks and jump cuts challenging our attention and attempts at sustained and critical thought. Since this whirlwind is precisely what I wish to escape when I pickup a novel, it may be obvious that this is not my favorite style. However, I am, as always, seduced by the intelligence behind the games and by the perennially fascinating question of what in fact we can know about another person.

I turned to this book a second time because of its focus on 19th century natural historians and arcane collections, thinking still about cabinets of curiosities. I also wanted to reread it because I have been thinking a lot about the shape of a life and the legacy left behind. We may have the bits and pieces we can learn about a person. We can rearrange these tesserae trying to form a pattern, trying to recreate the person’s thoughts. But ultimately the past is a foreign country and its people strangers to us. We impose our own thoughts on the tracings left behind, creating a palimpsest that may bear no resemblance to the actual person. And of course it is not just the past. Everyone is a stranger to us, even those we think we know well, with stories our only way into their minds and hearts.

The Scream, by Rohinton Mistry

McClelland & Stewart put out a special, hard-back edition of this short story by the author of Such a Long Journey (winner of the Governor General’s Award) and three other books, with royalties going to World Literacy of Canada. The story is an old man’s monologue that starts with his being awakened in the night by a scream outside his window.

Although set in India, the narrator’s concerns are universal as he struggles with his declining abilities and his growing conviction that his family is secretly working against him. He believes, for example, that they put ice on the cement ledge where he likes to sit, making it even colder and more uncomfortable for him. He relates how they pretend that the servant is his grandson, even letting him sit at table with them. He uses long and unfamiliar words—fifty-cent words such as caliginous, hypogean, galimatias, sesquipedalianism—to demonstrate that he still has his wits about him and is still smarter than his family.

The language is superb, such as the narrator’s description of sleeping all together in the back room, before he was banished to the front room. He speaks of listening all night to “their orchestra of wind instruments, their philharmonia of dyspepsia”. I loved the small details of daily life, such as the description of the chanavala selling gram and peanuts, with his tin can of spices.

The book is illustrated by Tony Urquhart using different types of paper, including the marbleized paper sometime used for endpapers of books, tempera and gel pens. Dreamy and slightly abstract, the illustrations add depth and texture to the story. For example, illustrations with snippets of a keyboard tumbling through the air contribute to the sense of disorientation, the fear that one cannot trust reality.

As I approach a significant birthday, I find myself thinking a lot about aging, about the small gains and losses each year. I appreciate this rant, this raging against the fading of the light, more than any sweet, consolatory fairy tale. However mistaken the narrator may be in details, his sense that he is being left alone to suffer the ravages of age and his belief that something is being stolen from him are only too real.

I met a man yesterday who claimed to have died and come back to life. He was being taken to the hospital when his ambulance collided with a firetruck. Pronounced dead at the scene, he was taken to the morgue in a body bag. Being an organ donor, he was taken from the morgue to have his organs harvested. By the time he regained consciousness, having been told (he claimed) that it was not yet his time, the doctors had removed one of his kidneys. I found his story hard to believe and almost asked, Thomas-like, to see his scar, but his story did make me wonder about negotiating with death.

This week I am mourning the sudden loss of a friend, beloved by many, gone too soon. I will miss him, and miss too the further wonderful things he would have accomplished had he lived a bit longer. Thinking of this story, I realise that much as I fear going too soon, I fear even more hanging on too long. I fear dementia more than death.