Elusive O'Faolain fails to let herself shine through



Julia O'Faolain

Faber, €16.99

Julia O'Faolain is most celebrated for her novel, No Country for Young Men, a dark take on Ireland's War of Independence, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. In lucid prose it explored Ireland's relationship with history and its treatment of women. It was, as the New York Times put it, "a stunning performance".

O'Faolain's memoir, Trespassers, retreads similar territory in a more cautious manner. O'Faolain was the daughter of revolutionaries disillusioned by the free Ireland. Her mother Eileen suffered through a marriage in which her husband embarked on multiple affairs, notably with the writer Elizabeth Bowen. Her father, Seán Ó Faoláin, grew bitter with a conservative Ireland, storing up censored books in their house, which the young Julia freely read.

Her parents' troubled romance forms a backdrop to this memoir. Of their relationship, she writes, "With hindsight, his marriage to my mother strikes me as providing a small but telling illustration of how people in de Valera's Ireland felt obliged to live. As was true of large parts of that society itself, disappointed idealism and a soured personal experience of its quarrelsome and rebelly past contributed to the glue which held them together."

Throughout her own story, her parents wield influence, featuring in its very last lines. "I write because Seán and Eileen did," she ends. "I ply my parents' trade."

Born in 1932, O'Faolain observed the 20th Century's most striking moments, and Trespassers traverses a broad swathe of history. Her telling of it is as richly fluent as her novels, and touches on the same themes – Ireland and history, family, religion, the role of women – but it lacks their penetrating insight and depth. O'Faolain recounts anecdotes and impressions, but rarely talks about her motives or responses.

As a writer who explored the imagined lives of others, she is reticent when it comes to her own.

Growing up in Killiney, O'Faolain attended a convent school before studying languages at UCD and winning scholarships that allowed her to travel abroad. She lived in Rome, Paris and Strasbourg, first as a student and then as a translator. It was a charmed life. She seems to have earned it through drive and intelligence, her ambitions as unfettered as her talents.

This was an unequal era, but O'Faolain casts a cold eye on feminine behaviour, deciding that women were far from being hapless victims of gender. At one point news of the French defeat in Southeast Asia had just come in and she realised that one of her young beaus, who was fighting there, might have died. She acknowledged the fact with a touch of discomfort as another young fellow drove her through the streets of Paris in his car.

"Young women, in those pre-feminist times, could be emotionally exploitative, living at second-hand through men." She had dalliances, first with a Frenchman called Jean-Paul and later with Lauro, an American academic, who would become her husband. Thus she gained the experience that she distilled into her first short story – a worldly piece about a boarding house run by nuns in which by young women dressed in negligees sat in their bedrooms and talked endlessly about men. (In retrospect she sees it a "crude caricature".)

From her sophisticated perch in mainland Europe, O'Faolain looked back on Ireland. One of the most pleasurable aspects of this book is her deft, often critical, characterisations of her homeland. Ireland seemed an "increasingly juvenile country" to her disappointed father, the priority for media and government being to "keep the Irish name untarnished". Dublin was "self-absorbed, obsessed by memory, treasured small scandals, retold puns and gave the impression ... of disproving the dictum that one cannot step into the same river twice".

Throughout her life, O'Faolain maintained an ambivalent connection with Ireland. She never mastered Irish, which is surprising, given her linguistic aptitude and her parents' passion for the language – Seán Ó Faoláin was born John Whelan, but adopted the Gaelic version of his name under the influence of nationalism. O'Faolain sees herself (and possibly other members of her family) as an outsider, one of the "trespassers" of the book's title. Nor is she afraid to call out the blind spots of Irish politics, noting how, as the Second World War came to an end, "that stickler for etiquette, de Valera, had already astonished the world by paying a visit to the German minister, Dr Hempel, to condole with him on Hitler's death". As for memoir writing, O'Faolain foregrounds her conflicted attitude towards it in her book's opening. When her husband saw a draft of the prologue he asked, "Why do you never tell us about yourself? ... Who are you? Do you even know? If you do, why not tell us? Is the answer so awful?" "It isn't, of course," she writes. "I have had quite a good life. Maybe that's the trouble. To write a lively story you need some darkness, even fear. Anger is good, too. It stirs things up."

Yet there is plenty of potential for drama and upset in the events that fill this account, not least in the friction within her parents' relationship: she grew up watching her mother miserably turning a blind eye to Seán's infidelities; and because of a family tiff, Julia invited neither of them to her wedding. In her own experience, an undercurrent of anger is surely palpable when she writes of one former boyfriend that their two-year affair gave her an insight "into the ways of liars".

Somehow though little conflict emerges in the calm shimmer of her telling. Nor is there much of a sense of struggle or of obstacles overcome. The tales of academic successes and sojourns in London, Paris and Italy seem more a list of accomplishments than an examination of the author's self. Rather than autobiography, many parts of this book read as a curious history – dense with thought-provoking moments but shedding little personal light on its intelligent but elusive protagonist – O'Faolain herself.