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.

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