Thursday 25 April 2019

Ambitious debut explores a family's struggle to communicate

Fiction M for Mammy

Eleanor O'Reilly

Two Roads, trade paperback, 432 pages, €14.99

Eleanor O'Reilly: worthy and admirable motives
Eleanor O'Reilly: worthy and admirable motives

The debut novel from Wexford-based teacher Eleanor O'Reilly begins with a short story. In a class assignment, 10-year-old Jenny Augustt introduces the rest of her family: her 'Ma', Annette, who is "in under the stairs again"; Jacob, her five-year-old brother who has been diagnosed with autism; and her 'Da', Kevin, who takes the kids to the local chipper for their dinner, which doubles up as a convenient excuse to hide from his formidable mother-in-law, granny Mae-Anne.

Despite a gloriously evocative review of a greasy bag of chips sure to leave any reader's mouth watering, Jenny's teacher is unimpressed, and dismisses her work as "all wrong".

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But Jenny is a born storyteller, and O'Reilly, too, is far more interested in language, communication and character than a traditional plot. It is to her fictional friends - Harry Potter, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas' Bruno and Shmuel, and Violet from Pixar film The Incredibles - that Jenny turns for comfort when her mother suffers a stroke and is forced to spend months away from home in rehabilitation.

Recognising Kevin's inability to look after his children, Mae-Anne swiftly moves in, bringing an array of cleaning products, pictures of the Pope and house rules along with her. She opts against telling Jenny and Jacob where their mammy is, and must try to hold the family together as they hope for Annette's recovery.

O'Reilly splits the narrative between the perspectives of Annette, Jenny and Jacob, although wisely remaining in third-person. Yet in trying to capture the mindset of a stroke victim and a young boy with autism, O'Reilly offers dense, disjointed and frequently overlong prose that can hobble the pace and frustrate the reader.

M For Mammy excels in the chapters told from Jenny's point of view. Caught between her bickering father and grandmother, her mute brother and absent mother, Jenny struggles to communicate, ultimately expressing herself most comfortably in writing.

As well as short stories, she sends letters to her mother, and, later, to Anne Frank, even composing an alternative ending to the tragic diary.

Jenny's passages also provide most of the levity in what can often feel like a heavy-going read. In an early highlight, she explains: "Nun Years are different from human years. Da says nuns live longer than people do. It's like when they're born they look like they are about 30 but then everything slows down, so they never really look older than 68 no matter what age they are. Every Nun Year is equal to about 12 human years or something like that. Da says there's even a Nun Year Converter online to work out the age of a Nun."

O'Reilly has a great ear for dialogue, reminiscent of Roddy Doyle, although at times, the scene-stealing granny comes across as more of a bundle of stock Irish phrases than a three-dimensional character.

We don't get many details about where the Augustts live, other than it being in a country town, and most of the action takes place inside the family home or at Jenny's school.

As the novel rambles on, the dialect-heavy writing style starts to grate, particularly in a cringeworthy visit to a Chinese hair salon.

While the cover and marketing may suggest a light, breezy read, this is a sombre story tackling illness, unemployment, homelessness and loneliness.

O'Reilly's ambitious prose and her efforts to provide a voice to the voiceless are worthy and admirable, but so drawn-out as to be difficult to engage with. By the time M For Mammy reaches its overdue conclusion, readers may feel the ambivalent ending is not entirely worth the slog.

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