Horizon at Sandy Point

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Woman alone

There is no ideal life. All of us have lives shaped by pre-existing conditions. Fortunate are those who achieve that mature perspective and are able to reflect on their circumstances; and through their own efforts "be somebody."

Sometime in her sixth decade of existence, Nuala O'Faolain (say noola o-fway-lawn) takes a look at her   life and responds to the question that she was occasionally asked by people who thought she looked familiar - "Are you somebody?" This leads to an introspective meditative recounting of growing up Irish, a woman, in an Ireland still decades behind the metropoles in the middle of the 20th century. It turns into a book.  The "accidental memoir of a Dublin woman" releases her from parents, past and country; and delivers a writer of no mean consequence. In this, her first book, she begins a process that dignifies all those people living unspectacular, unremarked ordinary lives, with the force and meaning of her own existence. At the end, after the first writing and publication, she adds the final and possibly most powerful chapter of Are You Somebody - Afterwords - included in editions after the first printing in 1996.

What is love, she asks again and again. And obliquely, who has responsibility for engendering understanding of love and being loved. Her mother and father stand accused: "My mother didn't want us. She hadn't felt wanted herself." And the further realisation: "It wasn't marriage that did her in. She wanted him. It was motherhood. It was us. But we didn't make her suffer. It was love and passion that made her suffer. It was that that undermined them all: my mother, and my father, ..."

Setting it all out in this memoir, Nuala sees herself dispassionately, without pity. It's an unblinking regard that she turns on her parents, a mother who in alcohol-induced oblivion bore seven or nine children; a father whose life as a reporter constantly takes him away from home and into the arms of another; her brothers and sisters, and her own self.  For much of Nuala's life, drinking in pubs alone or with others is like breathing or sleeping, the ambience of many relationships. She longs for the permanent relationship with a man who does care. Of all, it is the 15-year relationship with Nell McCafferty, the Irish journalist, feminist, playwright, that was most like a marriage. But Nuala doesn't get the stability of marriage, or the steadiness of a single place to be, to call home. In the end, it turns out, it's the Ireland that her father loved that is the home of her heart. And in the end, she's still looking for love from a man.

This search validates her being - without companions, without lovers - and buoys her to the end. Alone and sometimes lonely, the quest that is the longing for love and passion becomes the defining quality of her life. The first publication stirred responses - in letters and phone calls - a quiet chorus, "we are not alone," from those (including her brother and sisters) who do not cry out from the pain of their own lives.

She says, "I've prayed for love. If I can't receive it, at least to give it. And if I can't have it at all, at least to let others have it. I see the line of stain running through our family. Like rust, gradually dribbling further and further down a wall."

After Are You Somebody?, Nuala wrote four other books, including Almost There: the Onward Journey of a Dublin Woman. She died in 2008.

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