Charming Billy, by Alice McDermott

I followed All Souls with this story of another Irish family embedded in its community, this time in New York. Fiction rather than memoir, this book was deeply moving. Much has been written about Charming Billy so everyone probably knows that it uses the funeral and wake of Billy Lynch to explore the grip of the past and the strength of a community’s ties.

Usually I’m disappointed when I finally get to a book that has been praised and hyped and awarded prizes, but Charming Billy was even better than I had been led to believe. Reading it was like having my hair combed by someone whom I trusted completely. McDermott took the tangled mess and calmly picked apart the knots until by the end each strand had been smoothed and laid in place. Quiet, unassuming, this book led me deep into the hearts of Billy and the people around him until I felt as though I knew them all too and had grown up in this tight-knit family with its joys and griefs and compromises.

I’m still trying to figure out how McDermott did all that. I was never confused by the large cast of characters. Somehow she spiraled around their stories until each appeared clear and distinct in my mind. And the way the past was brought forward and gently inserted into the present. I’m going to have to read it again and possibly a third time before I begin to understand the craft that went into this book.

What the book brought home to me was how the stories we tell about each other bind us together. They become the legends and the common legacy of our community. I usually mistrust these tales, assuming that they are distorted or exaggerated. They can be so wrong and that lie becomes what is remembered about the person, as Milan Kundera in Immortality brought out so effectively.

Perhaps not lies, just ignorance or misunderstandings. My mother liked to tell stories about her children, putting her own opinions in our mouths. So, for example, she told one sister that I disliked her husband (my brother-in-law) so much that I could not bear to be in the same room with him, when in fact I like him very much and enjoy his company immensely. At first, I thought my mother was bored and trying to cause mischief, but now I think she did not even realise what she was doing.

Charming Billy opened my eyes to how we enchant ourselves with these tales and the way being lied to is the flip side of believing. Stories are powerful, especially those we tell ourselves about ourselves, but their power is not just destructive. Their power can be creative, and they become our common memories, the currency of our shared lives, the very fibers of our network of relationships with friends and family.

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