Poetic, poignant and funny: The Closet of Savage Mementos
Review: Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s second novel doesn’t flinch when tackling the dark truths of human behaviour
Author Nuala Ní Chonchuir. Photograph: Karen O’Neill
The Closet of Savage Mementos
Nuala Ní Chonchúir
‘I hate people who remind me of myself. And Lillis reminds me so much of me that I could kill her.” The past is ever present in Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s The Closet of Savage Mementos, a moving and beautifully written portrait of death, grief and motherhood. Artistic, volatile and an alcoholic, Verity may well hate the fact that her daughter reminds her of herself, but it is nothing compared to Lillis Yourell’s fear of turning into her mother. This dread of cycles, of handing down the misery, is at the heart of a narrative full of difficult characters trying desperately to love each other.
Set in Ireland and Scotland, the story is divided into two books, the first of which follows young Lillis as she escapes to the Scottish Highlands after the death of a close friend. The second book jumps forward two decades to contemporary Dublin, where, as a new mother, Lillis is haunted by decisions she made back in Kinlochbrack.
Also haunting Lillis is the living nightmare Verity, a mother who is part child, part oppressor. This could make for miserable reading, but in Ní Chonchúir’s hands the relationship is poignant and often funny.
Creativity rescues characters from their demons, providing an outlet for pain that would otherwise destroy. They make themselves heard, in art and in life, unafraid of repelling the world. Verity’s move from painter to “taxidartist” is both hilarious and highly appropriate, the stuffed animals showcasing her morbid eccentricity.
The Yourell men do not have the same capacity for expression. Lillis’s father flees to another woman. Her brother Robin shuns his sister’s moods: “He cannot stand when I am not lively, or going along with him in his banter. Like my father, he does not tolerate tears and bad humour.” Self-serving and frustrated, Robin relies on sex to make himself heard, the bitterness he develops as an adult suggesting this is no real substitute.
This is Ní Chonchúir’s second novel, following on from her critically acclaimed debut, You, from 2010. The Dublin-born writer is also prolific in other forms, and the poet’s aesthetic and linguistic sensitivity is evident throughout, from the “liver-dark water” of the Liffey to an unborn child “like a resting trout” in her mother’s womb. She doesn’t flinch when tackling the dark truths of human behaviour, the savage mementos at the heart of family relationships and growing up. Earlier work has drawn comparisons to Edna O’Brien. With her ability to get inside a story, and a writing style that is both lyrical and exact, it is easy to see why.