Motherhood, sacrifice and closed minds in bygone era
Former ad exec's new book is engaging and heartbreaking, says Marlene Lyng
Alison Jameson left her job as director of the advertising agency Irish International in 2005 to pursue a writing career. What might have seemed like a risky move turned out rather well for the former journalist and English teacher when her first novel, This Man and Me, a story about a young woman growing up and learning to deal with the world, was nominated for the IMPAC award.
Her second novel, Under My Skin, about young love, separation and the unreliability of internet friends, was another bestseller. Little Beauty is her third novel, a story about a single woman in the west of Ireland in the 1970s, tapping deeply into the psychology of the complicated main character and perhaps drawing on Jameson's own roots in rural Ireland.
In a close-knit community on the fictitious Whale Island off the west coast of Ireland in the mid-1970s, Laura Quinn, a single woman in her 30s, rejects the stifling mores of the day. She dislikes the gossiping neighbours who brand her as simple.
Her parents are dead and she has lived alone since she was 13. Her unsatisfactory relationship with thelocal lighthouse keeper who won't commit finds her leaving the island to work on the mainland as a housekeeper for a wealthy farming couple.
A one-night stand with the man of the house results in her returning to the island, having a baby and trying to bring it up herself. The lighthouse keeper, thinking it might be his child, marries her. But this well-drawn, poignant relationship never gets to the happy-ever-after stage because Laura's heart is elsewhere.
Laura embodies a montage of psychological damage, encompassing everything from paranoia, and hysteria to melancholia and delusion. But is she mad? Even at the end of the novel this is unclear.
In a harrowing scene, a plan is hatched to try to take her baby away from her using her suggested madness as a reason. A rag bag of island busy bodies and officials – comprising a sergeant, priest, doctor, social worker, and the wealthy farming couple – explain to Laura why she might not be a fit mother.
Like any highly vulnerable person pressurised by intimidating bullies, Laura allows it happen. But she fares better in an amusing one-to-one dialogue with a psychiatrist when the psychiatrist is rendered helpless as Laura fields her stock questions with better ones of her own.
This is a whimsical, meandering narrative set amid stormy island seas and the whiff of seaweed but its later chapters depart rather suddenly from the earlier ones and become a series of synopses of the characters' lives in their old age.
At that stage it becomes a different story, with a different tone, in a different place, with old people in a nursing home.
And while Jameson captures the final fading of once-full lives, we haven't been close enough to these characters to care about them, in the way that we earlier cared about Laura. She, too, is seen in old age – but all too soon.
Funny, engaging and ultimately heart-breaking, Alison Jameson's Little Beauty is an impressive portrayal of motherhood and sacrifice – and a reminder of the damage closed minds did in the Ireland of the recent past. A novel that lingers in the mind.