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Oona, a book without an 'o', is an ingeniously crafted marvel

Fiction: Oona

Alice Lyons

Lilliput Press, €15.00


Elegant and humane: Alice Lyons new book is stunning

Elegant and humane: Alice Lyons new book is stunning

Oona by Alice Lyons

Oona by Alice Lyons


Elegant and humane: Alice Lyons new book is stunning

'No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear," wrote CS Lewis in A Grief Observed. And it is fear that slaps the reader in the opening chapters of Oona, whose eponymous heroine is barely 13 when her mother dies of cancer.

Oona's attempts to overcome her panic and her abrupt, profound abandonment is the business of this novel. Although her mother had been bed-bound at home for some time, "They'd never said cancer.… they'd said tummy bug, thus the drip and the meals she lacked."

Oona watches the undertakers arrive: "A stretcher with a stick wrapped in sheets she was. Night night. Slid in the black hearse and away."

Two chapters later the reader discovers why the book is written almost entirely without the letter 'o', the broadest and, you'd think, most prolific vowel. But this isn't some quirky pique of poetic tricksiness - it makes contextual sense in its crafting, and the sheer innovation required for such a feat is a marvel in itself.

Oona's grandmother was Irish and her parents, in their suburban home in Urban Farm, New Jersey, are as anxious to Americanise themselves as their neighbours. The Irish, the Jews, the Italians, the Poles, all busy renouncing their pasts. "Language was being disremembered. Grannies and Granddads might emit strange guttural speech that was crazy and embarrassing. Get them away! Get them in the graveyard quick! We wanted a new speech. Bland terms - great, nice, neat - bleached speech."

But Oona loves language and art and finds a semblance of wholeness in both. A spell in Dublin in 1980 as a student, staying in digs in a family home, is the beginning of her poetry. The constant presence of the family's mother ignites her.

"Christina and her busy kitchen, her exacting cleaning and her daily appearance - the strange habit she had, appearing day after day and never disappearing - materialized in my writing."

Oona is still, in many ways, a gaping wound. A later trip to Siena awakens her impulse to paint. And some years later, having buried both her parents in a New Jersey graveyard where they are to remain "unvisited", Oona moves to Ireland permanently, settling in John McGahern country in Leitrim.

The language lightens somewhat here, as Oona is surrounded by the vernacular of the midlands, but the dreaded Tiger is soon to encroach on the village, and ugly monotone rows of new houses, soon to be ghost estates, are erected in muck-raked haste.

"When the village went septic, when rural renewal made it an Urban Farm, I went septic myself… a skewed lad had made a sign that said DEVILIPERS and marched with it as if the dudes with the land, diggers and cash had been devils."

Her frustration fuels her creativity, and swimming in the hard Atlantic makes her more resilient. Life - living - is refreshed.

Lyons is an award-winning poet and visual artist and much of Oona's story would appear to be Lyons's own. And while new volumes of autofiction, enjoying a moment right now, are pouring out of the printing presses, very few of them are as elegant, as humane, as ingeniously and beautifully crafted as this. It begs returning to.

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