A novel approach to Nuala
Hugo Hamilton’s new book travels into strange and slightly spooky literary territory. It’s a fictionalised account of a trip to Berlin that he made with his fellow writer Nuala O’Faolain just before her death, from cancer, in May 2008
Old friends: Hugo Hamilton. Photograph: Eric Luke
Old friends: Nuala O’Faolain during the trip to Berlin, shortly before her death, in May 2008
As a writer, Hugo Hamilton has always explored the place where reality and story meet – or, rather, where the edges don’t quite fit. His memoir of his Irish-German childhood, The Speckled People , has the shape and heft of a novel. His novels and short stories, meanwhile, like to reshape and rework incidents from his life.
Every novelist does this to a certain extent. But Hamilton’s new novel, Every Single Minute , travels into strange and slightly spooky literary territory. It’s based on a trip to Berlin that he made with his fellow writer Nuala O’Faolain just before her death, from cancer, in May 2008.
Although it didn’t happen exactly as described in Every Single Minute – for one thing, O’Faolain travelled with a group of friends, not with Hamilton alone – the visit obviously made a deep impression, and the narrative reconstructs its intensity in loving detail. But it is not, the author says, a memoir.
“Nuala was the best person to tell her own story,” he says. “Everybody I meet knows something about Nuala that I didn’t know. I can’t stand here and pretend to be the expert. I’m not a biographer, and this is not the authorised version. It’s not about recording. This is not a document. It’s something else.”
In the book, the female character who is dying of cancer is called Una, and the narrator who pushes her around in a wheelchair is called Liam, but that just heightens the weirdness, because the text is full of references to the “real” O’Faolain: to her journalism and her feminist activism, to her relationship with Nell McCafferty and to her well-publicised difficulties with her own family.
Hamilton’s narrator is also something of a double-headed figure. He resembles the author yet is very different. He doesn’t, for example, know Berlin or speak German, unlike his creator, who is fluent in the language and familiar with the city.
Because of the way the narrative is structured his companion is rarely referred to as “Una” and much more often as “she”, allowing the reader to constantly substitute O’Faolain for her fictional avatar. It’s all a bit dizzying, but towards the end the reader who may be asking questions is told unequivocally that there are no answers here. “Who am I to describe her life?” the narrator asks. “All I can say is read her books. That’s who she was.”
Why bother with the fictional names? Partly, perhaps, to create distance. “When I wrote it I had to put Nuala out of my head,” Hamilton agrees, with a smile. “I mean, to have Nuala sitting in the room with you and to write about her would be just impossible. She would be looking over your shoulder and saying, ‘Look, no. Hugo, that’s not the way it was.’ As a writer I have to interpret the whole experience for myself.”