Tell me about your Mother

Susan McCallum Smith

The Closet of Savage Mementos, by Nuala Ní Chonchúir, New Island, 288 pp, €13.99, ISBN: 978-1848403369

“Bad mothers run in my family,” states Lillis Yourell, the main character of The Closet of Savage Mementos, Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s sage second novel. So convinced is Lillis of the supremacy of nature over nurture, she allows fear to override her natural common sense until she “let everyone go in the end”. Ní Chonchúir peels apart, with savvy insight and brief flashes of dark humour, the often thorny relationship between a mother and a daughter, and how it transmutes over time ‑ especially when the daughter herself becomes a mother ‑ affecting the siblings, lovers, partners, children and friends on its periphery, like a rock thrown into a still pool.

The impressive quality of The Closet of Savage Mementos, following on from You, her fine first novel from 2010, ensures Ní Chonchúir will be name-checked in that ballooning roster of up-and-coming Irish writers capturing national and international attention, including Colin Barrett, Kevin Barry, Donal Ryan, Paul Murray, Claire Kilroy and bona fide superstar Eimear McBride. Nevertheless, I’m sure Ní Chonchúir smiles when described as a “new” voice, given that she has been working consistently and prolifically for over a decade. Slipping gracefully between short and long forms, between poetry and prose, she has written ‑in addition to her two novels ‑ four short story collections, four poetry collections and a book of flash fiction. She has also received numerous awards including the Cúirt New Writing Prize, the inaugural Jonathan Swift Award, the Cecil Day Lewis Award, and the Dublin Review of Books Flash Fiction Prize and has been shortlisted for both the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize and the European Prize for Literature.

Ní Chonchúir divides The Closet of Savage Mementos into two sections, set twenty years apart, though given how frequently the narrative flashes back from the second section to scenes set within the time period of the first, I wasn’t convinced of the efficacy of this structure. In the first section, titled “Book One: 1991”, the sudden death of Dónal Spain, Lillis’s closest friend and sometime lover, propels her into a tailspin of grief and regret; she flees from her job in a photography store in Dublin to work as a waitress in a Scottish hotel. Lillis’s beautiful, extended meditation about her late friend contains some of the finest writing in the book. She describes their childhood, swapping duffel coats so often “neither of us knew who owned which” and “racing our bikes over gravel and skidding hugely”, before comparing “the marks in the churned up stones”. In the hours between waitressing (clumsily) at her new job and snapping photographs of her new surroundings, Lillis attempts to “take him back from death for a while”, daydreaming endlessly about “Dónal, the photogenic. Dónal, the energetic. Dónal, the funny, the silly, the adventurous, the clever. Dónal, my first love. Lovely, gone-away Dónal”. Her fantasies are fuelled not just by mourning but by guilt: she had been reluctant to formalise their relationship, convinced her fondness did not equate to true love. Her conflicted emotions reflect, partly, the typical frustrations of youth; at twenty-one she yearns for escape, for that indefinable something that equates desire with otherness. “We had little in common apart from our long history and where we had grown up,” she concludes, a perceptive remark, no doubt, yet one which might make us (and her) smile at how quick we were when young to disparage such intimate understandings.

Lillis’s decision to bolt is also driven by her sharp-tongued, manipulative mother. Verity is an alcoholic; abusive when drunk and maudlin when sober, her default parental mode is exasperation. An artistic taxidermist ‑ a “taxidartist” ‑ she stuffs animals for a living and the results, though not PC, are striking. (Amusingly, Verity prevents Lillis from reading Lewis Carroll as a child  ‑ calling it “bloody nonsense written by a pervert” ‑ but when I attempted to visualise her art, it was froggy footmen and rabbits with pocket watches that sprang to mind, like three-dimensional versions of John Tenniel’s illustrations.) Lillis asks Robin, her flighty younger brother, to keep an eye on Verity while she is gone, but her loneliness is so acute she even finds herself missing her mother: “I miss our sparring.”

In Scotland Lillis begins an affair with her boss, Struan, a happy-go-lucky man, heavy on the charm and light on the commitment, and old enough to be her father. Struan runs the Strathcorry Inn in Kinlochbrack, a village popular with tourists, rimmed with salmon farms, and “Klondyker ships hulking in the bay like the forgotten remnants of a war”. I couldn’t find Kinlochbrack on a map, so I assume it is invented. Within driving distance of real locations such as Achmelvich beach and Stac Pollaidh, and with a delivery man who must go “down” to Inverness for the bread, I located it within my imagination somewhere on the northwest coast of the Highlands ‑ around Ullapool perhaps ‑ one of the most gorgeous places on earth, if you’ll forgive my bias. Thankfully, Ní Chonchúir’s Scottish (and Irish) landscapes are devoid of clichés; her deft word-painting gifts us skies over lochs tinted a “peculiar zinc and tangerine” and herring fishermen chugging out to sea “unzipping the water with their boat”.

 Struan hails from Glasgow (the city plays a significant role in the second half of the novel), and he takes Lillis there to meet his mother, “a dolly-bird gargoyle” who lives in a poky two-up, two down decorated in “tartan and saints a-go-go”. Surrounded by Catholic bric-a-brac and “gew-gaws of every level of tackiness: porcelain frogs, Spanish dolls, shell-covered ashtrays, and a Niagaric fountain feature that makes me want to pee” Lillis is served “beans on toast by candlelight” while a TV “hums in the corner, the sound turned down low”. Struan’s mother’s small talk is a cringing blend of ignorance and racism: “Och well. You’re from Ireland, hen,” she says. “You lot love your guns and bombs, eh? Shooting children and all that.”

When the gallery attached to Struan’s inn hosts an exhibition of Verity’s whimsical taxidermy, Verity and Robin come to visit, triggering a betrayal with far-reaching consequences. Twenty years later, during the novel’s second section set in 2011, we find Lillis still haunted by its repercussions.

Ní Chonchúir took the title of her book from a line in “Advice to Myself”, a superb poem by the American writer Louise Erdrich, which, if I had space, I would quote in its entirety. It begins, “Leave the dishes. Let the celery rot in the bottom of the refrigerator…” and continues in this vein of urging the reader to ignore the soul-draining drudgery of the everyday until:

Pursue the authentic ‑ decide first
what is authentic,
then go after it with all your heart.
Your heart, that place
you don’t even think of cleaning out.
That closet stuffed with savage mementos.

Erdrich addresses the necessity of understanding what necessity actually is; she articulates how often we allow minutiae to smother what matters. And, like Ní Chonchúir’s novel, her poem portrays the challenge of being both a mother and an artist. The Closet of Savage Mementos has been labelled semi-autobiographical but it is none of our business which parts may or may not be “true”. What cannot be denied is that Ní Chonchúir handles, with complete assurance, the broad spectrum of motherhood ‑ unplanned pregnancy, miscarriage, birth, and adoption‑ in conjunction with the human yearning for individual expression. Lillis navigates her own journey through fertility while simultaneously stumbling toward her vocation as a photographer, learning to “plunge forward, mapless, hoping for good signposts”. She has an eye for sublimity in plain sight, at one point describing “a barn in a field on the road between Galway and Dublin, near Tyrrellspass. When I see that barn ‑ every single time ‑ I experience one of those golden moments”, those frissons of creative joy. I shivered over these lines, because I think I know that very barn.

Verity, the novel’s other mother-artist, fails to balance parenthood with her craft. Egotistical and driven before Lillis and Robin were born, so she remains after. “You don’t love so much as plunder,” Lillis wants to tell her, while Verity, recognising in her daughter a similar artistic temperament, fights feelings of competitiveness entangled in self-loathing. “I hate people who remind me of myself,” she snarls. “And Lillis reminds me so much of me that I could kill her.” Verity’s real “crime” is not that she is an alcoholic, a racist, or physically and emotionally abusive ‑ nasty and destructive as those attributes are ‑ no, her crime, in Lillis’s eyes, and in the eyes of society at large, is that she dares to suggest that motherhood was not enough for her, to suggest that it was possible for a mother to feel ambivalence toward her child. This makes her the most interesting character in the book.

For surely the unmotherly mother is the ultimate taboo, particularly in Ireland, where cultural norms not only persist to presume that motherhood is the pinnacle of a woman’s ambitions, but also deny, sometimes with tragic results, a woman’s right to choose when or whether she has a child at all. Furthermore, there is an assumption that parenthood realigns our personal priorities, softens our essential natures. Whereas, regardless of our love for our children, I suspect most of us actually stay the same ‑ only more so: our strengths and weaknesses are magnified and, if we are not careful, duplicated. “I feel like a fraud,” says Lillis, while suffering from extreme post-partum depression. “I’m supposed to be delighted and serene, but I feel at odds with myself and irritable. There is no quiet time, no thinking time. There is just baby time.” She remembers when she was a child that her mother, Verity, used to scream “fuck off and leave me be”, and begins to understand her, if not quite empathise. “My head is too full of things ‑ Malachy, Nessa, motherhood, time, Cormac, housework, my real work and getting back to it ... it all soups together until I’m breathless with confusion; mired in some muddy place that makes no sense to me.” Both women, in different ways, remind me of the protagonist in Elena Ferrante’s remarkable novel The Lost Daughter (2006), about a woman with academic ambitions who temporarily abandons her children because “I loved them too much and it seemed to me that my love for them would stop me from becoming myself”. When Verity recognises Lillis’s struggle, she, too, shifts toward empathy: “Jump at the sun, sweetheart,” she tells her. “Don’t be like me. Jump at the sun.”

Ní Chonchúir’s first novel, You, is also about a mother and a daughter ‑ in this case the daughter is ten years old. Set in 1980, its unnamed child narrator looks after her emotionally fragile ma, her baby step-brother, and her own younger brother, after da left them three years before to start another family. Ma is smitten by her latest dodgy boyfriend, who “you’re always watching … because someone has to keep an eye on him,” and then your obnoxious cousin Rory comes to stay, polluting the house with his feet. Money is tight, but although you covet your best pal’s leather sofa, Soda Stream, and shop-bought fairy cakes, all you really want is your family ‑ healthy and whole.

Let me confess: I have an aversion for the second person point of view, especially in long-form prose; handled badly it can sound portentous and akin to being finger-poked repeatedly in the chest. Ní Chonchúir would heartily disagree. To quote from an interview, she believes it to be “a very Irish way to tell a story” given that it is both intimate and removed, and I can’t deny that in You she handles it miraculously well, creating an endearing but unsentimental voice for a little girl navigating benign neglect and the good intentions of hapless adults gone awry. When forced to move from her beloved home by the river into a council flat she complains: “you can hear their light switches and their hoovers and their tellies and their shouting. But there are no sounds of nature: no river, no rustly trees, no far-off cow mooing, and definitely no birds singing. The noises that you hear in the flat are so wrong to your ears that they make you feel closed in and afraid … You miss the tree-noise and river-hush of home.” Tragedy calls, naturally, but not in a way the reader might have been led to expect. You is a stellar example of a simple story executed flawlessly. It’s multiple-hanky, too; best prep to bubble.

Blood ties and fertility issues are also a primary focus in Mother America, Ní Chonchúir’s most recent collection of short fiction from 2012. Its many fine stories ‑  including “Cri de Coeur”, “When I Go Down, Go Down with Me,” and, best of all, the shocking and dry “The Doora Spinster” ‑ offer an abundance of memorable lines. Irish men are “handsome in a flinty way”, and while one woman was “soiled with the grime of all my marriages” another contemplates her husband’s affair in a house that “sighs and creaks, then sighs again, answering itself back”.

The short form leaves little room for error unlike the baggier generosity of the novel, and although I was impressed by her ambition and breadth in this collection, small issues niggled. In “Triangle Boy” she mistakes an event for story, whereas stories lie in the causes and consequences of events; once the reader recognises the famous tragedy at its heart, the ending we guess is the ending we get. “The Egg Pyramid” relies on the fame of its main character to bear the burden of import and ‑ I admit ‑ its use of second person added to my ambivalence. She has a sentimental strain (just a tad, not chronic) that sometimes threatens to get the better of her “bite”, especially when she’s on the home stretch ‑ a trait visible in both novels. Her most persistent tendency, though, is to write beyond the endings of her stories, even in those that are otherwise outstanding, such as “Peach”, “Moon Hill” and “When the Hearse Goes By”. Often she adds a final sentence or a tiny paragraph to tie something too neatly or give her readers a more defined conclusion, even if there is a stronger, more ambivalent opportunity earlier in the narrative for her to get the hell out while she’s ahead. This is a tic you might expect (and ignore) in a first collection but not in a fourth; although she has expressed her fondness for the short form over the long, perhaps her strength lies in the latter.

Given Ní Chonchúir’s abiding interest in women’s lives, it is inevitable that her work will be compared to that of Edna O’Brien; it seems the fate of all Irish female writers to be compared to O’Brien, as it is the fate of all Irish writers ‑ male or female ‑ to be compared to Joyce. Yes, like O’Brien, her prose is poetic without being precious, and her treatment of sex is refreshing and honest, but O’Brien owns no monopoly on these traits. Ní Chonchúir adds her own voice to the chorus of contemporary debate around relationships, motherhood, feminism and sensuality, led by such writers as Rachel Cusk, Jenny Offill, Eimear McBride, and Claire Messud.

Rumour has it that her new novel, due out in 2015, dramatises the life of a maid in the home of Emily Dickinson. It’s hypocritical of me to voice concern ‑ given that I’m a fan of works which fictionalise historical personalities ‑ but the increasing popularity of this genre makes me wonder whether we no longer find the lives of ordinary women (and men) interesting enough ‑ as though our cultural obsession with celebrity has bled into literature ‑ and we have become more enamoured by the ordinary in the extraordinary, rather than the extraordinary in the ordinary, because it is in the latter that Ní Chonchúir excels. I would rather, to quote Erdrich, she continued to remind us not to “worry / who uses whose toothbrush or if anything / matches at all”.

Take, for example, those scenes in The Closet of Savage Mementos dealing with adoption. Portrayals of this often controversial process are still rare in literary fiction, and even more rare are portrayals so delicately honed, or where adoption is presented in a non-judgmental and ‑ given the recent coverage of dreadful historical injustices ‑ unsensational manner. Having experienced first hand the awkward encounters that can occur between biological and adoptive families, I recognised, viscerally, one character’s impression of being quizzed and not being “one hundred percent sure my answers are right,” and how the word mother can “hang between us like a sprite, flickering out after a few moments but not until we are both squirming”.

Lillis’s irrational fear that she would be a bad mother reminded me of one of the magical contradictions of adoption: while biological mothers are often shocked to discover that their children bear little resemblance to themselves, adoptive mothers, on the other hand, are often shocked to discover that their children do. Still, I can’t help but suspect that the whole nature versus nurture debate is a red herring; we assume our children (biological or otherwise) will be some version of ourselves or our partners, or an amalgamation of the two, only to discover they are neither; they become ‑ if we are fortunate ‑ uniquely and utterly themselves. In The Closet of Savage Mementos a birthmother admits when meeting her biological son that “in all the years I have been imagining this reunion I have never heard his voice in anything but a Dublin accent. It seems so stupid now, but there you have it; I can be a very stupid woman at times.” I recently had a similar conversation with the birth mother of our adopted daughters, who told me she had been wondering about their accents. Born in the United States and raised partly in Ireland by Scottish parents, they now sound like neither she nor I. This astonishes both of us; it seems we can all be very stupid women at times.

1/09/2014

Susan McCallum-Smith is the author of Slipping the Moorings (2009), and her essays and reviews have appeared in The Scottish Review of Books, AGNI, The Southern Review and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Originally from Scotland, she currently lives in Ireland.

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