M for Mammy review: Thoughtful and original debut
Eleanor O’Reilly conveys the mindsets of a stroke victim and an autistic child
Eleanor O’Reilly celebrates the power of language and examines the tragedy of its absence
M for Mammy
Annette, Da, Jenny and Jacob constitute the little family of the Augussts. They live in what feels like a country town somewhere in Ireland; the only places described in any detail are the interior of the family home and Jenny’s school. Jacob, who turns six in the course of the story, is severely autistic. He cannot talk. And as Jenny observes, everyone in the family is “on the spectrum”.
The story starts in traditional mode with a major crisis. Annette, Ma, suffers a stroke and is whisked away to hospital in Dublin while the children are at school. Granny, a managerial type, swoops in to take over the running of the household, and is economical with information; she doesn’t tell Jenny where her mother is. The novel deals with the responses of the family to the absence of Ma, and progresses from about March to Christmas, with some minor events, until it reaches an ambivalently happy conclusion.
To sustain a lengthy novel with a slight scaffolding of storyline is challenging. The author is not concerned with events, however, but with character, emotion, and language itself. Annette loses speech as soon as she has the stroke; the experience of having a stroke is imagined brilliantly. Her journey is from frustrating speechlessness back towards some sort of articulacy. Jacob’s impressions are vividly expressed, but not in spoken words. He too is struggling just to say what is on his mind. In contrast, Granny is voluble and possessed of a rich and colourful vocabulary, enlivened by proverbs and traditional turns of phrase. Jenny is at least as gifted as her granny but she expresses herself in writing: she composes enormously long letters to her mother, and to Anne Frank, keeps a diary, and finally writes a book.
The aim of the writer – whose debut novel this is – appears to be to demonstrate and celebrate the power of language, and to examine and express for us the tragedy of its absence. But she also creates memorable characters.
Granny is a colourful figure who is amusing and benign. She holds the family together in its crisis. A bit of a granny stereotype, she is likely to irritate real grannies, like me. She speaks an old-fashioned Hiberno English dialect and has good clothes for mass. She has never heard of bouncy castles or party bags, unlikely in 2013. Actually she seems more like my granny, who lived from 1895 to 1970, than like me or my ancient pals – but that said, she fulfils a role in the novel, and I interpret her as an excellent representative of a rich oral culture.
Jenny lives in a world of books. As mentioned above, she is in correspondence with Anne Frank, and fictional characters are as real to her as her family and friends: Harry Potter; Bruno (from The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas); characters from films and TV shows populate her world. For Jacob too, Thomas the Tank Engine, Henry and Bertie and all the other engines, are as alive as his sister or his dad. Eleanor O’Reilly succeeds admirably in showing how consciousness mixes fantasy and reality, and how impressions drawn from play and fiction blend with pictures from life, not only in the minds of those who are on some “spectrum” or other, but in the minds of any human.
“Jacob spins the wheels round and round. Jacob puts the green carriage on the track after the blue carriage. Click. ..They are going somewhere over the hill and through the tunnel away from the goodbye-waving man and past the shop. Daddy made the tunnel and the trees. Daddy made the goodbye-waving man.”
Some of the sections, especially Jacob’s, might have benefited from cutting. This kind of writing is worthy and impressive, but in small doses, and there is a rather lot of it in this novel.
The author has, however, succeeded in conveying to us the mindsets of very different people – the stroke victim, the autistic child, the child prodigy. And while there are several different voices, it was an inspired decision to keep them in the third person. By doing so, she avoids the danger of false notes which can sometimes mar polyphonic novels. Hers is fresh, thoughtful, and original – a charming debut.
Éilis Ní Dhuibhne’s latest book is Twelve Thousand Days: a Memoir. She is an ambassador for the Irish Writers’ Centre and a member of Aosdána