With her first fiction, memoirist O’Faolain (Are You Somebody?, 1998) offers an expansive work touching on the nature of passion, loss, and hope.
Approaching 50, Kathleen de Burca finds her life a tidy ruin: a travel writer for decades, she’s led a life that may seem glamorous and exciting, yet she has little to show for her wandering years, which seem now less like exploring than simply running away. “The older I got,” she says “the heavier my burden of not having been happy yet.” At the death of her dearest friend, Kathleen decides to quit her job and return to her native Ireland, where she hasn’t set foot since she was 20, to research a little-known divorce case from near the end of the Great Potato Famine (1845–49). She hopes to discover grand passion between the English Marianne Talbot and her Irish stable groom William Mullen, but all she finds are questions—and buried, haunting memories of her own. A nesting box of stories, her narrative slips from the present to a full recounting of her past, then to the distant past in the fairy tale she begins writing about Marianne and William. Not surprisingly, she elevates their love, something she’s had little of in her own life. Involved in one debasing sexual experience after another (including a submission to her aged London landlord simply because he asks for it in lieu of paying a clean-up fee), Kathleen is now left to confront the lonely shape of the life she’s created and the Ireland she left behind. In a lyrical and often brutal account of Irish life, the Talbot affair and even the misery of her own parents become sins of the dead bearing down on the living. Kathleen’s journey home, though, provides the needed catharsis and introduces her, as well, to a man who will love her—if she chooses.
An honest and poignant account of a woman attempting to build a future on the ruins of the past.