Sunday 24 September 2017

Dublin tenements saga proves a hit with critics in the US

Rave reviews: Martha Long's Ma series has been compared to Dickens
Rave reviews: Martha Long's Ma series has been compared to Dickens

John Spain Books Editor

A misery-lit series of seven books by a woman who grew up in extreme poverty in the Summerhill tenements area in Dublin in the 1950s has won lavish praise from literary critics in the US.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Color Purple, Alice Walker, has given the series a rave review and compared it to Dickens.

The final book in the so-called 'Ma' series by Dublin woman Martha Long, Ma, Jackser's Dyin' Alone, is now out in Ireland and the UK. But the first three books in the series, which began with Ma, He Sold Me for a Few Cigarettes, have just been published in the US.

Despite being ignored and even ridiculed by critics in Ireland, the books have been hailed as a major literary achievement in America.

"Even Charles Dickens, whom we appreciate for being the voice of so many abused children, is left in the dust," Alice Walker wrote in her review of Ma, He Sold Me for a Few Cigarettes.

In the US the books have been brought out by the literary publisher Seven Stories Press. They have been taken much more seriously by the literati in the US and have been given admiring reviews in the two literary trade magazines Kirkus and Publishers Weekly.

Even in the UK, Martha Long's talent has been more recognised than at home.

"Long's books are a genuine literary achievement, head and shoulders above anything else in the genre, a social document with a compelling human face written by a truly gifted storyteller," The Bookseller magazine in the UK said.

Given Long's disrupted childhood and schooling, her literary success is remarkable. The titles of the books, like Ma, I'm Gettin' Meself a New Mammy, the use of Dublin slang and the misery-lit label may have put off the critics in Ireland. But this did not influence reviews elsewhere.

Now a mature woman with three grown-up children and a comfortable home in the Dublin suburbs, Martha Long had a very difficult childhood. Born to an unmarried teenage mother in the Summerhill slums in the early 1950s, she had it tough from the very beginning.

Her mother had a succession of men in her life and more children.

Martha and her young siblings lived hand-to-mouth in squalid, freezing tenement rooms, clothed in rags and forced to beg for food. Things got even worse for Martha when her mother got involved with the abusive Jackser.

But what could have been a depressing story is transformed by Martha's irrepressible spirit and it is this that has connected with international audiences.

In the last book in the series, Ma, Jackser's Dyin' Alone, Martha hears that Jackser, her childhood abuser who sold her "for a few cigarettes", is seriously ill. She is elated, thinking that finally she will be able to watch him suffer. But in the hospital she sees a frightened, lonely old man and realises that he regrets his earlier actions.

During her vigil she is joined by Ma, her beloved little brother Charlie and some of her other siblings, all of whom have suffered greatly. Many unanswered questions about her life from the earlier books are answered.

Ma, Jackser's Dyin' Alone is published by Mainstream in trade paperback at €17.35.

Irish Independent

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