“I could donate my days to finding her, I tell myself, I could do that, and I will.” The urge to give – of her time, her body, her intellect – is the beating heart of Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s prose debut.
The 17 chapters that make up this most unusual book see its author sacrificing something of herself for any number of higher purposes, though there is a wilfulness to Ní Ghríofa’s narrative that saves it from martyrdom. There is the sense throughout of a woman who has figured out what it means to be alive and who wants others to join her at the party.
A hybrid of essay and autofiction, A Ghost in the Throat charts one Irishwoman's discovery of another in an intricate text that reels back through the centuries. As she looks after her young family – four boys and a baby girl – in various rental accommodations around Cork, Ní Ghríofa sets herself the onerous task of writing a new translation of the 18th-century poem Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire (The Keen for Art Ó Laoghaire) by Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill. Ní Ghríofa isn't the first to translate the poem (there are lauded versions by Thomas Kinsella, Frank O'Connor and Eilís Dillon) but the way she weaves this years-long process with tales from her own life results in a truly unique project that comes alive on the page.
A bilingual writer whose books explore death, desire and domesticity, Ní Ghríofa is well-placed to offer a translation of the epic lament. Her latest poetry collection was chosen as a Book of the Year in both The Irish Times and the Irish Independent, and her awards include a Lannan Literary Fellowship, a Seamus Heaney Fellowship, and the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature.
Translation and research
In A Ghost in the Throat, both her translation work of the Caoineadh and her historical research appear meticulous. Though she sometimes has impostor syndrome – “I hold no doctorate, no professorship, no permission-slip at all” – her fears are quickly dispelled by the reader; it would in fact be hard to imagine another person who could match her consideration of the poem, the way she lives the verses and is emotionally impacted by their meaning.
Above all, Ní Ghríofa is looking to reclaim the voice of Eibhlín Dubh: “How quickly the academic gaze places her in a masculine shadow, as though she could only be of interest as a satellite to male lives.” Along the way we also get glimpses of the lives of other Irishwomen. The town Kilcrea means “the church of Créidh, after the first abbess to establish a holy house there”. Eibhlín’s mother Máire gives birth to 22 children, and buries 10 of them. Ní Ghríofa becomes invested in the histories of her fellow countrywomen: “Whenever there wasn’t space for both of us in my days, I chose her needs over mine, skipping meals and showers and sleep.”
This obsession, though heartfelt, can occasionally be long-winded for the reader, who cannot hope to match the author’s level of interest in her subject. Sections on Eibhlín and Art’s relatives are one example where the pace flags. But it is a minor criticism in a searing debut whose voice speaks loudly to the reader right from its opening line, and oft-repeated mantra: “This is a female text.”
Ní Ghríofa writes brilliantly on marriage and motherhood, wallowing in the habitual, the banal. On using a breast pump: “The sensation at nipple level is like a series of small shocks of static electricity.” On the lack of desire after giving birth: “Every flicker of want was erased from me with such a neat completeness that I felt utterly vacant.” On an emergency surgery to save her baby girl: “The smell of barbecue, of burning, I realise slowly, is me.”
With writing as strong as this, Ní Ghríofa more than earns her place alongside contemporary writers such as Emilie Pine, Sara Baume, Lucy Caldwell, Sinéad Gleeson and Elaine Feeney. But there is something that sets A Ghost in the Throat apart, an otherworldliness or older-worldliness, which stems from her lyrical prose and the stoic, almost noble sensibility that runs through her autofiction. Sometimes the prose is Gothic in nature – "I make myself a life in which whenever I let myself sit, it is to emit pale syllables of milk, while sipping my own dark sustenance from ink" – with descriptions of ordinary, 21st-century activities frequently rendered strange and beautiful.
If the Caoineadh is a literary genre that entwines strands of female voices over centuries, A Ghost in the Throat can proudly take its place within it as a truly modern iteration of the form.