Ghostly existence

Ghostly existence

Lead review

Ghostly existence

Alice McDermott’s new novel, ‘Someone’, follows an ordinary girl from an Irish-American family through the milestones of her life, writes Janet Maslin...

One Saturday morning, as the heroine of Alice McDermott’s quietly exquisite new novel is just developing a classic case of pre-teenage insolence, her mother summons her to the kitchen for a cooking lesson. It’s all in a day’s work, but the girl, Marie, takes it for granted that her mother has already done the family’s laundry and hung it out to dry. This is a book so deft that even the damp shirts and school blouses on the clothesline have some import. Marie sees them “hung upside down by their hems, their arms waving in a way that made me grow dizzy in sympathy.”

In this Irish-American household in Brooklyn, New York, glimpsed at different time periods in Someone, Saturday washing is followed by the baking of soda bread. Marie’s mother makes it exactly the same way at the same time each week, but on this curious day there is a variation. “I’ve got to meet your father downtown,” the mother says, meaning that Marie will have to remember to take the bread out of the oven in 40 minutes.

Left alone, and incurious about why, Marie imagines gloating over a perfect loaf when her mother comes home. But she’s distracted by the neighbourhood kids, and she ruins the bread, and only years later will this episode weigh on her. The next day, mother and daughter take the father to a hospital. When Marie tries to wave goodbye to him, “it took me some time to find the right window,” McDermott writes. “And then I saw him waving to us from behind the sky’s reflection,” a place from which he will never return.

McDermott brings supreme ease and economy to summoning young Marie’s memories in detail (why did those shirts seem to suffer?) and staying within specific time periods in Marie’s life. It is only later that the book will revisit that soda bread and link it to a sense of loss. Marie survives her father by at least 66 years, which means that this slender-looking book is filled with incident, transformed by experience, apprehensive at the constant sense of imminent loss. McDermott gives Marie the perfect job: hostess and professional mourner at a funeral parlour, where she will re-encounter dead characters who remain very much alive in her imagination.

Seven years have elapsed since McDermott’s After This arrived. An abundance of work time may account for the unusual degree of symmetry that shapes Someone, a book that begins and ends with the same minor character, a girl who jokingly predicts her own death in a fall. Marie is only seven then, and already sitting vigilantly on the stoop of her house, waiting for her father to come home. As she sits vigil, she sees other neighbourhood figures, and she will somehow outlast them all.

“I shivered and waited, little Marie,” she recalls in the novel’s opening pages. “Sole survivor, now, of that street scene. Waiting for the first sighting of my father, coming up from the subway in his hat and coat, most beloved among all those ghosts.”

While Marie watches others so keenly, McDermott, of course, watches her. And even though her story is told episodically, in starkly nonchronological order, the timeline of her life is very clear. She learns the rules of laughter and cruelty from the community of kids in her populous neighbourhood. As a child, she sees things she will not understand until much later.

Big Lucy, a fat girl with mental disabilities, is whisked away to an institution after she begins showing signs of adult sexuality. But Lucy is unaccountably graceful on the morning of Dora Ryan’s wedding, which is watched intently by all the local busybodies. So is Dora’s shamed appearance in the local church on the following morning, with no husband in sight. The groom turned out to be a woman in disguise, which is something that Marie, her peers and even their parents cannot understand.

This matters to Someone because of the ways in which her handsome younger brother, Gabe, suffers. Gabe is an uncommonly strong, decent figure at first, stepping into his father’s role and trying to keep Marie’s teenage waywardness in check. He studies at a seminary and becomes a priest. And then, one day, he is no longer a clergyman, saying that the priesthood was not for him; he never explains much more. But one of this book’s most searing scenes describes an event at which McDermott hints long before she is ready to present it: Gabe’s breakdown, an event that has an almost biblical aspect. Because Marie is a very human Someone, she is not at her kindest or best when trying to understand what happened.

The development of Marie’s sexuality, presented through only two love stories, is equally indelible. If you intend to read Someone, skip its jacket copy to avoid seeing what her married name turns out to be. But she has two suitors, polar opposites in moral qualities that matter and physical ones that don’t. This book’s Mr Wrong literally leaves his mark on Marie, and winds up taking her breath away.

She goes on to have four children in a long-lasting marriage that is utterly credible in its quotidian detail. Early in the marriage, Marie goes through agonies of childbirth that are astoundingly powerful. Later, much later, the book describes Marie and her middle-aged husband’s bedtime rituals with tenderness, at a time when glamour and flirtation are distant memories. Marie bears more resemblance to her mother than she does to her own younger self.Someone is a wonderfully modest title for such a fine-tuned, beautiful book filled with so much universal experience, such haunting imagery, such urgent matters of life and death. But McDermott is plain-spoken even at her most wrenching.

After Marie nearly dies, she claims to have no words for what she has been through. Her body has been “shucked,” so that “now I knew the quick work pain could make of time, of a lifetime.” With the baby healthy and the crisis past, Marie sees her mother glance at her “with sly eyes, with that secret smile about her mouth that warned against the risk of drawing too much attention to the deepest joys.”

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