Monday 9 December 2019

Books: A story of life, death and self-renewal

Book review: The Closet of Savage Memories, Nuala Ní Chonchúir

Nuala Ni Chonchuir
Nuala Ni Chonchuir
The Closet of Savage Memories by Nuala Ní Chonchúir

Can mementos really be savage? Memories, yes indeed, but 'mementos' doesn't have that same sense of those jagged shards, it conjures up images of an enraged stick of rock or an angry 'kiss me quick' hat. Author Nuala Ní Chonchúir is not responsible for this slightly awkward title for her second novel, she borrowed 'The Closet of Savage Mementos' from a poem by Louise Aldrich. And this title is easily overlooked in this engaging book.

At its heart is Lillis, who we first meet as a 20-year-old Dublin girl in need of escape, escape from a painful tragedy that has possibly permanently broken her heart and escape from her mother Verity, an alcoholic and apparently indifferent 'taxidartist' (she makes her taxidermy into creative art – picture a pigeon with an elegant cigarette holder and a flowing blue gown).

And Lillis seems in many ways to be in danger of being stuck a girl forever, as if her emotions froze or were fossilised the New Year's Eve night her best friend and naive first love Donal drove his motorbike into a wall, possibly an accident and very possibly not. Her emotional stagnation might have been caused by the fact of Donal's all-consuming but unrequited love for her, as the teenage Lillis could only ever consider him her friend and sometimes lover. Or it might more simply be a condition inherited from the determinedly removed Verity.

Lillis spends the next 20 years searching for the unsearchable before settling with the familiar, the almost, the closest thing to Donal but not Donal.

In this most readable novel, Ní Chonchúir explores how our past shapes and informs our present, as it traces back to when the seeds of Lillis's future were planted, or inherited, as Lillis has to confront the uneasy possibility that she may indeed be more like her contrary mother Verity than she would ever like to believe. But Verity is not necessarily a bad mother no more than Lillis is a good daughter, the truth is always more complicated than that and thankfully there are layers here and depths. Ní Chonchúir addresses issues such as post-natal depression, the sense of unravelling that it can bring, although Lillis seems to be the kind of woman who would always have found a reason to unravel.

The book is divided into two parts, allowing Ni Choncuir to cleverly play with time. In part one, chapters fluctuate between Lillis' childhood and her past with Donal and the present, her life after Donal. And then, we move 20 years forward and the past becomes a continuing line from the present in part one.

There is a twist, a plot device to force a sharp abrupt turn in Lillis's path and it is the one real misstep, the other two characters involved behaving in a manner that is simply unbelievable and out of step with the relationships we readers have formed with them. Of course people surprise us everyday with abhorrent acts but for some reason this doesn't read true. However, it is little more than a small bump and forgivable for where it brings the plot.

It ends with a slightly too neat resolution and a surprising forgiveness. But there is also a sense of new beginning too, as Lillis needed to get past her past, to let go of the anchor it had become and stop using it and the likes of her mother as reasons not to be living her life.

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