The Washerwoman’s Genes

April 22, 2006

Review: My Dream of You by Nuala O’Faolain

Filed under: Reviews — by WWG @ 12:18 pm

In this recent novel, a contemporary Irish expatriate travel writer—a character seemingly based on the author—explores her own personal and romantic impasses as she revisits rural Ireland to research a book. Kathleen de Burca’s subject is the historical, albeit minor, “Talbot Affair,” a scandalous case of adultery and divorce in a nineteenth-century Ireland still reeling from the effects of the Famine. Attempting to discover the truth of the case, the narrator embarks on a re-experiencing of the Ireland she abandoned for England as a young woman. This re-engagement of her native land involves a passionate and inappropriate love affair, one that echoes the tragic passion at the core of the Talbot divorce.

The novel is O’Faolain’s third book, following her two autobiographies and preceding her recent non-fiction book about the Irish expatriate and minor international criminal, “Chicago May.” Both later books intertwine the narrative of a historic subject with the personal travails of a solitary female Irish writer who seeks the truth of the matter.

Kathleen of My Dream of You has been so obsessed with passion that she has failed to form any long-term intimate commitments. Now nearing fifty, she finds her main companions in life to be her work colleagues, one a gay and high-spirited American who dies suddenly during the time of the novel, and the other her deeply private, unmarried boss, who by the end has been shattered by the death of his elderly mother and seeks to retreat to the order of Anglican monks of which he has secretly been a member. Kathleen herself is so self-alienated that she lives in a basement apartment in London, in between gadding about the world on a travel writer’s expense account.

Her choice to research “the Talbot affair” allows the novel to expound on both Irish history, specifically the Famine and its effects on the Irish, as well as the meaning of love and the meaning of life. (It is a long novel.) The research takes her to the county of her upbringing, prompting her to delve down, layer after layer, through the crushing and draining events her own life, from her bleak Irish family and rural narrowness to her peripatetic and unbounded personal life to the present emptiness of her life in middle age.

O’Faolain is a seismographically sensitive recorder of nuances in nature and in human interactions, and she writes eloquently of the profound ironies embodied by her main character: Kathleen is shown to be an educated, worldly woman, who has created a new identity for herself that belies the cultural impoverishment of her upbringing, who can quote Rilke and adores Schubert, and who travels the world as lightly as most of us cross a street. Yet she struggles to the end with the debased self-image, the lovelessness, the isolation, that are shown to be endemic in the provincial Irish mileu as a result of centuries of colonization and of the Famine’s devastation. (“It is our Holocaust,” Kathleen comments as, for the first time in her life, she takes a close look at the effects of British policy on the Ireland of the early 1800s.)

Indeed, the Famine, with its dark origins in English land-grabs and mass evictions, is as much a player as background in the scandal of Marianne Talbot’s purported affair with an Irish stable hand. Marianne is revealed as a woman famished for passion despite her marriage to an English lord; his high-toned British emotional rectitude and arrogant, deliberate cruelty converges in his treatment of his wife and of the Irish, a population deemed less than human by the English overlords.

For its portrayal of the Ireland so many abandoned for America, the book is a black treasure, as it records the remnants of a now-ancient crime scene: the British having driven the Irish off their land, sent them into the streets and into earthen burrows, to drinking the blood of sheep they are too weak and helpless to steal, to lingering tortuous death. The remoteness, the dismissive, depressive aura of provincial Irish family life seems to devolve from that era of such struggle and failure. Hope for the future seeps in as O’Faolain shows the current Irish personality to be more expressive, more open, more trusting, than that in the Ireland of her youth.

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