Portrait of a 20th-century Irish-American life
To spend time with Alice McDermott's slim seventh novel is less to read a story than to slip through piercing shifts of emotion as its pages turn.
The form of the book is episodic, with our narrator, Marie, always centre stage, in scenes that take her from a child of six, on the stoop of her family's Brooklyn home, to a chair in a nearby care home, old and almost blind. We begin in the 20s, with the "to and fro" of boys on the street playing stickball, and the rhythmic indoor movement of Marie's mother folding and unfolding the white cloth of the table where meals are taken and homework is done.
The family is Irish Catholic, as is most of the local immigrant community. The father drinks; the son has a religious vocation, which he quickly loses. Marie is not fond of Mass but finds herself "a guardian angel" when her mother gets her a job with the affable Mr Fagin, the local undertaker. His own "lace-curtain" mother lives upstairs, surrounded by visiting nuns who judge the bodies below in "a kinder light" than ever shone when they lived.
All this is told in prose that can feel almost physically radiant. The light that floods this book is used throughout to show what words cannot communicate in these simple lives. Any emotional turn brings a change in light, often imbued with a sense of grace. Marie has a nightmare and wakes to find "the walls of the room lit by lozenges of street light, long rectangles and a thin cross". Christ is not a saviour here, but he is certainly in the mix. Everywhere, people "cup pale hands", presumably yearning for some ghostly host. Everywhere, flesh is seen as marble; moving bodies seem briefly frozen, like premature stone memorials.
After almost dying in childbirth, Marie watches a midwife in the room: "Her fat arms were cool and solid and grey as marble."
In the midst of these lives we are indeed in death, which gives their small pleasures a very particular glow. After a date with a stray GI during the war, Marie breathes the scent of her handkerchief: "Evening in Paris and Old Spice. It had been a lovely evening." It's hard to think of a more economical description of young love. McDermott is an extraordinary writer. This is a beautiful book.
Bloomsbury, pbk, 240 pages
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