Almost There: The Onward Journey of a Dublin Woman
by Nuala O'Faolain
A review by Caitlin Flanagan
The Irish journalist Nuala O'Faolain's 1996 memoir, Are You Somebody?, became a best seller in America and a sensation in Ireland. Like Angela's Ashes, it was published during a momentous period in that country, when countless Irish people were uniting in outraged opposition to some of Ireland's most entrenched and brutalizing forces, including the Catholic Church, alcoholism, child neglect, and an oppressive patriarchy. O'Faolain's life was profoundly shaped by all these forces, and so many readers found a version of their own experience in her story that the book became politically important. "Ireland changed," O'Faolain notes simply and accurately in the preface to the paperback edition, "and I was to be both an agent of change and a beneficiary of it."
If O'Faolain's new memoir, Almost There, is far less powerful, that is only because her subject is minor: the book chronicles her experiences since the publication of Are You Somebody? "The story is a parable," she tells us, "about miracles that might happen to anyone in middle age." And indeed, much of the book is rosy. O'Faolain reports that she has surfaced from a deep depression in these past few years. By adopting some much-loved animals and then by reaching out to new friends and to her siblings, she has conquered the loneliness that marked so much of her life. Many of these anecdotes, particularly those about her siblings, who shared her desperately unhappy childhood, are affecting. O'Faolain writes so well and is in possession of such a keen intellect not to mention that greatest of Irish traits, wit that her remarks on a variety of subjects, from the indignities of middle age to the complexities of Irish America, are always engaging, even if they lack some unifying principle to give them a greater, combined effect.
However, although I admire O'Faolain's literary achievements, I find much of her behavior, as recounted in Almost There, questionable. For someone to identify herself as a feminist as she passionately does yet to have affairs with married men is, at best, hypocritical. Granted, she possesses more than the usual amount of self-knowledge about this contradiction: "It is an evidently wrong thing to do for one woman to use her freedoms to secretly steal from a woman who is less free," she correctly notes. Still, her last affair ended not because she acted on this noble insight but because she got dumped.
Consider, too, one of the "miracles" she describes in the book's first chapter: she is at long last helping to raise a child. Whether that child the daughter of the man who is the current object of O'Faolain's fickle sexual and romantic attraction will come to regard her exposure to O'Faolain as equally miraculous remains to be seen. O'Faolain is intensely jealous of her lover's attentions, and she rails against the child's share of them: "I have no interest whatsoever in eight-year-old girls," she tells him at the beginning of one sickening harangue, and "We have to have Christmas the way she always had it or she'll be upset? Tell me you're kidding!" O'Faolain reproduces six of these ugly rants, apparently as a kind of public confession. But what about their effect on the poor girl who will surely read them one day, or on the girl's mother, who is helpless to protect her child from someone whose interests clearly run counter to the girl's? I must ask of O'Faolain and her kind: Why bother to cripple the patriarchy when women themselves are so eager to do the old, dirty work of humiliating wives and hurting children?
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