This is the second novel from Nuala Ni Chonchuir and from the outset her voice was in my ear, which is the sign of a consummate storyteller. Information on the book cover reveals that 'The Closet of Savage Mementos' is drawn directly from the author's own experiences and explores heartbreak, loss, motherhood and adoption'. The reader is set up to take a personal part in the narrator's journey from Dublin to a remote Scottish fishing village.
The tale begins in the late 1990's, before Ireland's champagne-fuelled property binge. Twenty-one year old Lillis Yourell, a photography student, has just started her job as a waitress in a Scottish 'artisan' hotel.
We find her in a church mourning Donal, her first love and friend, who has died in a motorbike accident. She has fled the toxic cloud of her alcoholic mother, Verity. Being alone in Scotland doesn't daunt her; the restaurant is busy and she is comforted by the minute and dramatic changes in the colour and shape of the loch. She observes her environment through a finely tuned lens, focuses on detail and crops out what she doesn't want to see.
This is how craggy, lothario, Struan, hoves into her sights and claims her. He is her boss. What lies beneath him, she is never sure; he is a shallow mystery with an explanation for everything. The other waitress, Sam, has an unexplained antipathy towards Lillis which is a clever device to avoid matey female confidences. Scenes between Lillis and Struan crackle with tension and heat, sex is neither graphic nor gratuitous, Ni Chonchuir writes it organically.
Lillis's childhood was rent apart when her parents separated. Her father lives in Galway with his Indian wife and their two sons. She and her brother, Robin stayed with their mother, who became progressively dissociative; alcohol and abandonment feature prominently in Verity's rationale of motherhood. She is acutely depicted as anything but an Irish mammy, working as an artist in taxidermy, she dresses stuffed animals and imbues them with human affectation. This anthropomorphic metaphor establishes the many guises mankind adapts to deceive and betray.
One of Verity's redemptive moments is her declaration when she first meets Struan:
'There's too much Ireland in Ireland, you know? It's all soggy and gummed up, with rain and the church and subterfuge… Ireland is not emerald-shaped or harp-shaped or shamrock-shaped. It's de Valera-shaped. F**ked up and rotten. But still. I love it. I f**king hate the place, but I love it.'
Extremes of perspective thread the book, conflict between youth and age, love and lust, bitterness and ultimate acceptance. It comes as no surprise that Ni Chonchuir is an accomplished poet; her language is elemental and fundamentally female; in the manner of the elegiac The Wife's Lament. The tone is one of grief for lost love, childhood, youth and much more. It has the echo of a brave heart devoid of saccharine sentimentality.
Lillis Yourell maintained a quiet resolve when dramatic life-changing events overcame her, she followed through her plan. Her decision would torment her. Towards the end of the book, we meet her twenty years later, trying to reconcile that past.
In a recent interview, Ni Chonchuir explained that she wanted to revisit the moment her life changed at twenty-one years old and explore an alternative decision. The only way we can change the past is to make a fiction of it.
This isn't a story of sparkle and bling; there are no cosy fire-side chats, fun shopping sprees or drunken parties. It is raw, beautiful and compelling, a 'must read'.