The octogenarian Irish novelist, playwright, poet, biographer (and more) revisits her rich and sometimes rowdy life.
The best sections of this episodic memoir are the first and final quarters of the text. In the first, O’Brien (Saints and Sinners, 2011, etc.) writes affectingly of her girlhood—her memories of being attacked by an ill-tempered dog, of playing with dolls in her dining room, and of discovering and nurturing her interest in literature and writing. “The words ran away with me,” she writes. She worked in a pharmacy in Dublin but soon fled when the seductions of sex and literature and celebrity whispered that she could have a very different life than the one she was experiencing. Her account of her marriage to writer Ernest Gébler is grim and often depressing (understatement: he was not happy about her literary success), but she eventually left him, battled for custody of her children (she eventually won) and soared off into celebrity, a state that consumes the middle—and weakest—sections of the book. She seems determined to list every famous person she encountered, and the roster seems endless—John Osborne, Robert Mitchum, Paul McCartney, R.D. Laing (who became her therapist), Harold Pinter, Gore Vidal (she stayed at his Italian villa), Arthur Schlesinger and Norman Mailer. On and on go the names, a virtual phone book of the famous. These sections are mere molecules on the surface of some much deeper issues that she neglects. In the final quarter, O’Brien returns to some effective ruminations about finding a place that’s “home” and about feeling mortal—even old (an encounter with Jude Law is poignant). Near the end, she revisits her abandoned girlhood home, drifting through it and remembering.
Emotion and reflection contend for prominence with superficiality; the former win, but barely.