By Nuala O'Faolain.
528 pages
New York:Riverhead Books, 2001.
ISBN # 1-57322-177-5

Comments of Bob Corbett
May 2003

This is Kathleen Burke’s story. She makes it out to be about other things, especially the 1850s story of Marianne McCausland Talbot and her alleged lover, William Mullan, but it is only in studying and writing about their story that she elucidates her own world.

At age 50 Kathleen’s life is crushing down on her. While she’s achieved a good deal of success at making money and securing a reputation and job in the travel-writing field, she has very few human relationships at all. She is the queen of the one-night stand to satisfy occasional sexual needs and alone in the world in a fundamental sense. When her one really close friend, Jimmy, dies, Kathleen’s world seems to come crushing down on her.

She knows at some level that her Irish family history is a great weight and she had resolved never to return to the Ireland she fled some third years earlier to her secure refuge in London. But the death of Jimmy is sort of the straw that broke the back of her ability to hide from deeper things inside her, and she grabs on to the historical case of Marianne and William. She decides to change her life dramatically, though she doesn’t much articulate this even to herself until much later. She quits her job and returns to the Ireland she vowed never to return to. She seeks out the history of Marianne as though she can somehow find meaning for her own life in unpacking this mysterious historical tale.

Marianne Talbot was an English gentlewoman living in western Ireland in the late 1840s, toward the end of the famine. Her land-owning English husband is busily engaged in driving peasants off their land preparing to be part of the movement to change Ireland from an agricultural country to a sheep and cattle raising economy under the control of large-holding Englishmen. Marianne is alleged to have had an affair with William Mullen, stable hand at their estate, and, obviously, far beneath Marianne in station, education and many other factors seen at that time as relevant. This alleged affair is uncovered and Marianne accused before a religious tribunal of infidelity and condemned to an institution for the insane. Mullan slips off to America.

But did the affair really occur or not? Kathleen investigates the slim evidence and when unable to uncover enough material to decide the historical truth, she begins to create a fictionalized version of their story, a version which reflects a great deal of the yearning and romanticism buried deep in Kathleen’s inner self.

The mode of story telling is one of shifting back and forth from Kathleen telling us of her life, both as it is being lived and memories of the past, and then telling us of the alleged affair between Marianne and William. If one were to simply measure text, the bulk of the novel concerns Kathleen’s memories of her past, especially the horrible childhood she had and the impact that has made on her life. Next in simple volume would be Kathleen’s account of her current life and lastly, really a very short story, the history and fiction of the Talbot affair. The point here is that this is a book about Kathleen, not Mariannne.

However, I have to leave the text to refer both to Nuala O’Faolain’s earlier book, ARE YOU SOMEBODY?, an autobiographical account of her life. Further there was a recent interview O’Faolain did with Diane Rehm on National Public Radio (2/25/03). Her book and interview make it clear that the intertwining of fiction and autobiography of the author in this novel is very difficult to untangle. I’ll leave this issue with that point and return to viewing the novel from the point of view of the character Kathleen.

Kathleen has lived alone since her early 20s when an affair went bad because of her infidelity. She lives the next nearly 30 years single and mainly alone, satiating her rather significant sexual desire with one night stands with strangers met in her travels as a writer. Now, at age 50 she allows herself to acknowledge to herself that she desires a stable and long-term relationship, even a fairly tradition marriage. It is this constant dream that causes her to so romanticize the alleged Marianne and William affair into some sort of tragic passionate love.

However, what Kathleen gets offered instead is a curious possible relationship with Shay, an Irishman married to an English woman whom he either loves, or at least is so used to, that he can’t imagine abandoning her. He offers Kathleen to be a “kept woman” with whom he will pass three or four days a month in the wild passion they have experienced in a few days of a mini-affair. But Kathleen’s life will be one of waiting for his arrival, which will always have to remain unannounced and irregular. She must weigh two things she values very much: the wild passion she has with Shay and which she has rarely experienced in her life, and a freer and more self-directed life like she’s been living which has had its rewards even if it’s left her lonely and starved for deep human connection. She would convince most readers that she really won’t get any chance for both, her choice is an either/or.

In her interview with Diane Rehm O’Faolain allows that the relationship between Kathleen and Shay was based on a real relationship in her own life, but, she cryptically remarked, the reality was not quite as romantic as the novel suggests and she tells us that she reveals more about this affair in her second autobiographical book, ALMOST THERE – THE ONWARD JOURNEY OF A DUBLIN WOMAN (2003).

But Kathleen is deeply torn on what to choose, the limited “deal” that Shay offers or to continue on her lone way trying to give new directions and meanings to her life after the death of Jimmy.

I enjoyed the bulk of this novel very much. O’Faolain had so many things going and such interesting characters. First there was the rotating back and forth in time from the Talbot affair of the 1850s to the Kathleen affair of 2001. There were the fascinating characters of Jimmy and Alex at the travel writing agency. There was the wonderful old librarian Miss Leech and the hotel keeper, Bertie, Miss Leech’s consort. O’Faolain has the ability to create marvelous characters.

I enjoyed her movement back and forth in time between the life of Marianne and William and the present and past lives of Kathleen. I was impressed by the philosophical content of the novel raising challenging questions about the meaning of human existence and the seeming dichotomies between lives of raw passion and lives more sedately and safely lived within the confines of social tradition.

The novel has much that pleases and stimulates.

However, I was quite disappointed with the way it came crashing to an end in the last 25 or 30 pages, with resolutions tumbling out with great speed in such contrast to very slow and careful build up of the previous 500 pages. I felt a bit cheated. Kathleen at least resolves her situation, but just in sentences rather than in any depth, and Marianne and William are simply abandoned to ambiguities of history without adequate evidence to arrive at a decision.

I don’t disagree the either of O’Faolain’s conclusions was unwarranted, not even surprising. Just so abrupt, almost as afterthoughts rather than developed conclusions following the plan and form of the rest of the novel, that I was taken aback and somewhat disappointed.

No matter. I like O’Faolain’s writing and story telling. It is a bit hung up on the Irish family and especially the mother figure, but I can live with that. I will, no doubt, now seek out her latest autobiographical piece. Just as her first book, ARE YOU SOMEBODY? had a title was itself a sort of philosophical puzzle, so this new book, ALMOST THERE has an equally delightful philosophical puzzle in the title itself.

I strongly recommend Nuala O’Faolain’s writing to all.

Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett