‘Dark terrain’ – Mother America by Nuala Ní Chonchúir

Nuala Ní Chonchúir is the type of writer that makes my head spin – Mother America is her ninth book in less than a decade, and her fourth short story collection.  Her previous books include volumes of poetry and a novel, and her facility to grapple with a multitude of styles and genres is clearly evident in this latest volume. Including a selection of very short stories, or flash fiction, as well as historical, surreal and grimly realistic longer pieces, Mother America is a diverse and enjoyable collection – and, while it’s not without its flaws, it’s certainly an interesting read.

From the book’s throat-grabbing first line – ‘There was a pregnant woman getting drunk in the back lounge’ – Ní Chonchúir demonstrates a willingness to enter dark territory, and it was the stories that indulged that tendency that appealed to me the most. The opener, ‘Peach’ (which was nominated for a Pushcart Prize), is the tale of a fucked-up courtship – the narrator gets involved with the drunken pregnant woman (see above), Maud, who, no longer pregnant, explains that she was the surrogate for her sister, who’s now, suddenly, taken the baby away to live in Boston. The narrator manages to get Maud’s budgie, Droopy, killed, and, soon after, Maud herself leaves Ireland for Boston. The underplayed tragedies of Maud’s life are well-balanced with the fumbling loneliness of the narrator, and the story – a matter of glimpses, more than a spelled-out life – is one that resonates. Equally memorable, but considerably more bleak (because Maud, after all, set off on an optimistic mission), is ‘Letters’, in which (spoiler alert) Ní Chonchúir manages to pull off a tricky about-face in reader empathy. Her narrator is a lonely, illiterate old woman, brought from Ireland to the east coast of the USA by her beloved son, Mattie, who then moves to the west coast, abandoning her and sending her letters she can’t read. As the story progresses, we see the grim side of her parental affections emerge – ‘There is Mattie, moon-faced and smiling, stouter now than when he left; his arm is draped across the black wife and she is grim and thin’ – as Ní Chonchúir sketches a portrait of obsessive, jealous love. It’s not often that a writer succeeds in making me switch allegiances so thoroughly mid-story; ‘Letters’ is a masterful example of the unreliable narrator at work, and, I think, the strongest piece in the collection.

That’s not so say that there aren’t many more superb stories – ‘Triangle Boy’, the story of an Irish boy and an Italian girl working together in a garment factory in New York when it catches fire, is both poignant and vivid, capturing a tender, joyful relationship in the midst of awful circumstances. ‘The Doora Spinster’ is the best of the shorter works, in which brilliantly casual dialogue and a child’s narration frame a brutal incident (I won’t spoil that one). ‘Spelunker’ juxtaposes a son’s loss of his mother with his work as a graffiti artist. Set mostly in The Undercut, an unused Parisian train station, on the day of his mother’s funeral, it’s a beautiful paean to art, remembrance and love. ‘Easter Snow’ is another love-story – a brush with death on the way to an antenatal appointment amidst the Manhattan snow. Ní Chonchúir’s language is, at times, perfect; ‘Our child is there, a pulsing egg; he sends out his slow, sonic whirr to us through the blizzard that surrounds him.’ Two paired stories – ‘Scullion’ and ‘My Name is William Clongallen’ – tell the stories, respectively, of Mary, a maid in a big house in Ireland who bears her master’s child only to have to flee as he tries to keep the baby from her, and of the baby, William, or Guillermo, adopted after his teenage mother dies on the passage from Ireland to America, and who then returns to Ireland as an adult to rediscover his roots. His affirmative rejection of his paternal heritage is one of the best moments in the book – along with his mother’s long-ago scorn for her mistress’s ignorance: ‘the scutty bitch doesn’t know a thing.’

I was less keen on some others. The infidelity triangle of husband/wife/sister in ‘Moon Hill’ was a little predictable, and I didn’t think the characters were well enough developed for me to truly care about their fate. ‘The Egg Pyramid’, about Diego Rivera’s affair with his sister-in-law, told from Frida Kahlo’s perspective, fits several recurring themes in the collection (infidelity, loyalties, endurance, family) but I wasn’t convinced by the second-person narration, and neither was I sure that the piece transcended its circumstances – that is, were it not about a famous couple, and were it not for the reader’s likely knowledge of Frida Kahlo’s life and work, I’m not sure it would stand up in its own right. Likewise, ‘Cri de Coeur’ is a fictionalised treatment of the suicide of Ted Hughes’ second wife, Assia Wevill, and though it’s competently told – Ní Chonchúir is nothing if not linguistically sure-footed – I didn’t find it particularly distinctive. Although the writer gives Wevill a welcome voice within that particularly tragic family saga, I wasn’t especially compelled by that voice – her character seemed irate and fed-up rather than suicidal. I would have liked to hear a voice to rival Sylvia’s, rather than an exhausted sigh. But, of course, that’s a very tall order, and a minor complaint in what is, overall, a strong collection.

Any Cop?: Yes – this is a good read. Ní Chonchúir’s stories range in place (Dublin, Galway, Cork, rural Ireland, the USA, Paris and more) and in time, but they’re all lashed together by their concern with family – more specifically, motherhood and childhood, which gives the book a cohesiveness that is sometimes lacking in short story collections. Give it a shot.

Valerie O’Riordan

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