Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 464 pages; 2002.
Nuala O’Faolain was an Irish journalist, who died of cancer last year, aged 68. My Dream of You was her critically acclaimed debut novel about a middle-aged woman coming to terms with her past in order to embrace her future. It’s one of those big, rambunctious novels that’s a bit like an onion, with layer upon layer of meaning to peel back and discover.
It’s bawdy and shocking in places, but tempered by good humour throughout. The hugely complicated, multi-layered storyline never feels like hard work. And there’s so much going on to provoke and challenge one’s own values that I’m sure this book is going to stay with me for a long time to come.
The narrator, Kathleen de Burca, is a highly successful travel writer, who has been the “tenant of a dim basement, half buried at the back of Euston Road, for more than twenty years”. When her colleague and best friend Jimmy dies of a heart attack, Kathleen’s life seemingly falls apart. She quits her job and returns to her native Ireland for the first time in more than two decades, where she hopes to write a book about a divorce case from history that has long intrigued her.
The Talbot vs Talbot judgement centres on a refined English woman (Mrs Talbot) accused of having an affair with a domestic servant (William Mullan) in 1849 at the height of the Irish potato famine. While undertaking research for the book in rural Ireland (near where the Talbot’s once lived), Kathleen finds herself analysing her own life: a 50-year-old spinster who has never settled down with a man, although she has had numerous love affairs and one-night stands.
Estranged from her siblings — an older sister in New York and a younger brother in Ireland — she also begins to look back on her family relationships and how they have shaped her personality and tough outlook on life. Her now-dead father was emotionally distant, but it was her mother, who suffered from depression and later died of cancer, with whom she struggled to understand the most.
The book interleaves these very different narrative threads together into one seamless whole. It is so ripe with meaning, you could read My Dream of You ten times and still not get to the bottom of everything buried here.
One of the big themes that runs throughout this remarkably readable novel is sexual love versus romantic love and how Kathleen’s “life would be marked by my misunderstanding of passion”. It is clear from the outset that Kathleen does not feel she deserves to be loved, which is why she never turns a man down when he asks for sex. But whom to blame for this attitude?
I explained what happened in different ways to myself at different times in my life. My availability, I’d call it, rather than promiscuity, was Daddy’s fault for not loving me, or Mammy’s fault for having sex with Daddy when they never even talked to each other, or both their faults for showing me no other version of closeness between a man and a woman except sexual closeness. It was Catholic Ireland’s fault, for sending me out into the world without a shred of inner moral sense, and it was England’s fault, for making me feel inferior and unwelcome except when someone wanted to fuck me. It was the fault of the 1960s, for inventing the pill and the miniskirt; and it was also the fault of history, for making a world in which everyone had to pretend to bow to the bourgeois ideal of fidelity.
There are other themes, too, not the least of which is what it was like to be Irish living in London at the height of the IRA’s bombing campaign. At one point, Kathleen recalls an incident in which she was doing a piece on ‘Hidden Beauties of the Peak District’ for the magazine when she returned to the hotel and found the police waiting for her. They asked her to open her bag, which was sitting on a packing case in a garage, and then told her to take the battery out of her travelling alarm clock.
Sorry about that, the senior policeman said. They don’t get many Irish around here. It was nothing, that little episode. It didn’t take five minutes. They had every right to do it. But for a long time afterwards I thought, they could have set me up! God knows it had happened to other Irish people… I learned to ask for things — a meal, a drink, directions to a place — in a low voice and as neutral an accent as I could manage. I learned to look up at the television — at the pictures of tape across driveways, shoppers staggering forward with blood on their faces, white ambulances screaming around the curves of quiet housing estates — with no expression on my face. And to read my newspaper, and smile at everyone, and say nothing noticeable.
But at the very heart of the novel is Kathleen’s acceptance of herself as a good person who deserves to be happy without society judging her for it. When she meets the charming Shay, a man with whom she feels a deep affinity, the promise of a secure, loving relationship, albeit it with strings attached, beckons — but at what price?