Wednesday 24 January 2018

My Buried Life by Doreen Flynn - Brave themes from worthy debut novel

Dublin author Doreen Finn
Dublin author Doreen Finn
My Buried Life

Maggie Armstrong

Dubliner Doreen Finn's debut novel opens at a graveside, the chief mourner suffering a hangover. Goodie, we think, this is irreverent.

Eva Perry, a 38-year-old academic, has come home from New York for her mother's funeral. "My abominable mother," she writes. "Could she find a better way to drag me back from New York?" This'll be fun, we think.

And Eva Perry is a bit of fun. Her brother, Andrew, killed himself when she was 16, her mother disowned her. Her father is dead. Her lover has left her. She is a survivor, a man-eater, a lush with a drinking problem and a dark humour: "I could have sworn the sun was shining this morning when I woke up."

Her bourbon-drinking bitterness brings to mind Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, "funerals are pretty compared to deaths."

She is also languid, self-hating and introverted, and difficult company for 249 pages. This writer's very literary new voice brings to mind Julia Kelly's first novel, With My Lazy Eye, but without its lightness and zest. The descriptive beauty doesn't have a strong plot or a sympathetic character to hold it at the height it deserves.

In Dublin, Eva finds a job teaching in a secondary school, hires an Eastern European cleaning lady, meets men. There's Sean, a blonde surfer who provides the endorphin hits the novel needs, and Adam, a kind and handsome intellectual who drives a vegetable oil Merc.

If only we could come loose from the wordy weight of the prose and enjoy. We don't even get a sex scene. The narrator is in a deep depression, a "vessel of sorrow", even in the last pages. The confessional style might be one long AA meeting, but she keeps it high-brow, psychoanalytic.

We intimately know her regrets, unhappiness and guilt. Descriptions are beautiful, yes. "The wooden Venetian blinds are closed against the luminosity of morning, which still manages to sneak in through the gaps, striping the table with thin bars of saffron light".

Doreen Finn's delicate detail turns the everyday into something exquisite. Like at school: "The dry smell of the chalk and dust is gentled by the lingering silence of the post-class school". Or when she turns on the heating: "I baked in an abundance of calefaction."

It staggers the pace of an already leaden read. I'm "too much inside my head", Eva says. "Self-consciousness, that old enemy, creeps over me". At one stage Eva calls herself a "washed-up poet". Unfortunately, it makes sense.

As its title tells us, the book is uncovering a "buried life". The story is moving backwards, digging into the family tragedy, edging forwards very slowly. Often instead of having real conversations, Eva drifts back to her past in New York. There our drab heroine is out-drabbed by Isaac, "Professor Kraal", her ex-lover. He neither says nor does nothing interesting. Without flesh and blood characters having meaningful exchanges, we're left cold.

Then there is the moralising. The story is set at the end of the Celtic Tiger and Eva joins the national anger over zombie banks, ghost estates, political scandals. The "soul" of Ireland, Eva finds, is "greedy, self absorbed, corrupt". She is unimpressed by the "nouveau riches" and "streaky" fake tan. It starts to feel a lot like cultural superiority. Her recession rage jars with her social status.

She lives in Ranelagh, where she has inherited "three storeys of red-bricked Victorian terrace." Not bad, you think. Adam's house in Sandymount is "almost completely open plan... huge windows letting in the grey afternoon light". Pretty nice.

She also inherits a lot of money, a sum "unreal to her", allowing her do whatever she wants and donate her home to her cleaning lady. We are left with a bizarre answer to social dispossession: charity.

I tried hard to love this novel. I admired its purple passages as you do landscape paintings in an art gallery, diligently. But it didn't move me. Its brave themes may move some of you very deeply.

Fiction: My Buried Life

Doreen Finn

New Island, pbk, 249 pages, €13.99

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