Author, Book review, Ireland, memoir, New York, Non-fiction, Nuala O'Faolain, Publisher, Riverhead, Setting

‘Almost There’ by Nuala O’Faolain


Non-fiction – paperback; Riverhead Books; 288 pages; 2004.

I do love a good memoir, and after reading Nualo O’Faolian’s Are You Somebody? last year (which I awarded five stars) I knew I just had to read the second part, Almost There.

Of course reading this book feels kind of spooky (and terribly sad), because O’Faolain, an Irish journalist, died of cancer four years after it was completed, and at the time of writing she would not have had the slightest inkling of what fate had in store. She writes fondly of looking forward to growing old with a new love and his young daughter, and there’s a real sense of optimism about the future. Perhaps it’s better that she didn’t know what was just around the corner…

Almost There fills in the six years after O’Faolain’s first memoir, which became a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic, was published in 1997. During this time she becomes a bit of a hermit, hiding away from the world in response to the breakdown of her 15-year relationship with Nell McCafferty that left her feeling emotionally raw, isolated and lonely. (Ironically, her relationship with Nell barely got mentioned in the first book, and it’s much the same for the second. But O’Faolain does explains that she had not wanted to spoil a good relationship by putting it down on paper.)

The loneliness is compounded by a year living in Northern Ireland (she basically packed up her Dublin house overnight) to write a column about life north of the border for the Irish Times. It was an experiment which proved profoundly difficult for her and it was only when she moved to Manhattan, where she then pens her first novel, My Dream of You, that she begins to feel life is returning to some semblance of normality.

Most of the memoir is a kind of meandering look at how that initial publishing success changed her circumstances but didn’t necessarily change her as a person: still psychologically damaged from her difficult childhood and grappling with the anger (mainly against her alcoholic mother) that this has caused; still unable to settle down with a man, but not afraid to pursue sordid love affairs.

I think the best thing about Almost There, aside from O’Faolain’s beautiful writing and her unashamed pursuit of the truth, is the way in which she gives voice to so many other “late middle-aged” (she never uses the term elderly) women like her: hugely successful on the outside, with wonderful careers and enough money to live comfortably, but deeply lonely because they never married or had children. She is so honest about her hurt and her regret that it’s difficult not to share the pain. However, O’Faolain doesn’t wallow in self-pity and always tempers her pathos with dark-edged humour and fond memories of the good things that have happened to her. She knows when she is sounding like a spoilt child and is not afraid to admit it.

While not as wonderful as Are You Somebody? this is a moving account of one woman’s search for meaning in her late middle-life. Before reading this one, I’d suggest reading her novel, My Dream of You, (if you haven’t already) because she references it a lot, and you can very easily see how she mined the events of her own life for the fictional 50-year-old character she created.

Author, Book review, Ireland, memoir, New Island, Non-fiction, Nuala O'Faolain, Publisher, Setting

‘Are you Somebody?’ by Nuala O’Faolain


Non-fiction – paperback; New Island Books (2nd edition); 264 pages; 2008.

I’ve read some extraordinary memoirs in recent years, all by professional writers — Pete Hamill’s A Drinking Life, Hilary Mantel’s Giving Up the Ghost, Amélie Nothomb’s The Life of Hunger — and this one, by Irish author, journalist and TV producer Nuala O’Faolain, is right up there with the best of them.

O’Faolain, who died last year aged 68 from cancer, was a household name in Ireland. Indeed, in the introduction to this edition, she writes that she was “fairly well known” but is quick to point out that she was “no star”:

People have to look at me twice or three times to put a name on me. Sometimes when I’m drinking in a lounge bar, a group of women, say, across the room begin to look at me, and send one of their number over to me, or when I’m in the supermarket someone who has just passed me by turns back, and comes right up to me and scrutinises my face. ‘Are you somebody?’ they ask.

By contrast, I know very little about O’Faolain outside of her wonderful novel My Dream of You, which I read earlier in the year and had been told was a thinly veiled biography. Having enjoyed it so much I figured I should try the “real” thing, which is how I came to read this memoir.

There’s no doubt that O’Faolain knows how to write. There’s also no doubt that she knows how to do so in a very candid way. There’s no hedging her bets, or taking a softly-softly approach. It’s all here, warts and all.

She was born one of nine children in 1940 “when nine was not even thought of as a big family among the teeming, penniless, anonymous Irish of the day”. She viewed herself as a nobody, just an ordinary girl, in a country constricted by Catholicism, who would eventually be married and kept by a man. And yet, for most of Nuala’s life, she rages against this stereotypical expectation and breaks as many social norms as she can.

Without going into too much detail, she moves in with a man she has not married (a huge no-no in Holy Catholic Ireland at the time) and later flees to England, where she forges a hugely successful academic and journalistic career. But along the way, despite her successful working life, there is something missing: a troubled past and estranged relationship with her family seems to keep her back (her father, a well-known Irish journalist, does not come off very well in this memoir, nor her mother, who turned to drink to numb the pain of a bad marriage). And then there’s her promiscuity and search for “passion” which ultimately leaves her feeling rather lost and empty.

Surprisingly, for a woman so candid about her sexual desires, she gives scant regard to her partner of 15 years, the journalist Nell McCafferty and barely mentions her in this book, apart from describing the odd cosy holiday together. (Perhaps Nuala’s second volume, entitled Almost There, may fill in some of these gaps.)

Are You Somebody? is about one woman’s search for meaning, dealing with a past that you cannot leave behind and coming to terms with growing old. There’s a sadness at the heart of this memoir, and a slow-burning rage, too, and perhaps just a smidgen of self-pity. But, ultimately, it’s a powerhouse of a read, and you come away from it feeling as if you really got to know the lonely, flawed and hugely intelligent and brave woman who wrote it.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Nuala O'Faolain, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘My Dream of You’ by Nuala O’Faolain


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?