The Book Club - You're not reading alone: questions to keep you focused
We'll be reading the Closet of Savage Mementos until January 15th so here Sarah Gilmartin has put together some book club conversation starters. Don't forget to look out for our audio podcast with the author in mid-January
“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, 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 repeating 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 to work as a waitress after the death of a close friend. The second book jumps forward two decades to contemporary Dublin, where new mother Lillis is haunted by the decisions she made back in Kinlochbrack following an intense but short-lived relationship with an older employer.
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 Chonchuir’s hands the relationship is poignant and often funny: “Then she locked us under the stairs. Good old Verity and her brilliant parenting.”
Creativity rescues characters from their demons, providing an outlet for pain that would otherwise destroy. For all the heartache that the Yourell women experience, they achieve a peace of sorts. They wail and rail against perceived injustices. They make themselves heard, in art and in life, unafraid of repelling the world. Lillis’s camera helps her to structure the overwhelming grief she feels at the loss of her childhood friend and sometimes boyfriend Donal. When a different but equally unexpected loss occurs later, her photographs offer a way back to a version of herself she tried to eradicate. Verity’s move from painter to “taxidartist” is both hilarious and highly appropriate, the stuffed goat kids and pigeons showcasing her morbid eccentricity.
The Yourell men do not have the same capacity for expression. Lillis’s father Anthony flees to another woman. 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 (2010). The Dublin born writer is also prolific in other forms such as short fiction and poetry. 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. There are startling images of death and its incomprehensible nature: “The truth of it, the facts of what he had said, was like trying to grip a wet eel.”
Ní Chonchúir 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.
Questions for The Book Club on The Closet of Savage Mementos
- William Faulkner’s ‘the past is never dead; it’s not even past’ is a perennial of fiction. Lillis is still grappling with the decisions of her youth twenty years later. How has her past life in Kinlochbrack affected her present and influenced the person she has become?
- We all turn into our parents someday, or do we? Discuss the relationship between Lillis and Verity and the ways in which both women are alike and differ.
- Why do you think Lillis refuses all offers of help later on in the book? Would she have been better off seeking help from her family and friends, or from Struan himself, or has her independence and courage stood to her?
- In her excellent memoir Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal?, Jeanette Winterson wrote: “Creativity is on the side of health. It is not the thing that drives us to madness; it is the capacity that tries to save us from it.” Talk about this in relation to the characters in The Closet of Savage Mementos.
- “Quality women’s fiction” is a term that gets bandied around a lot. What does it mean to you as a reader? Is it insulting (where is the ‘quality men’s fiction’ shelf in the bookshop?) or is it a necessary distinguish from commercial women’s fiction? What other authors does Nuala’s writing remind you of?
The Closet of Savage Mementos, Nuala Ní Chonchúir
New Island, €13.99, 190 pgs, April 2014
Sarah Gilmartin is an arts journalist.