Phil, or Our Woman, is a Mayo woman whose humdrum existence is shattered when she discovers her beloved son, Jimmy, in flagrante in the barn, his limbs gripping the lower torso of a young male neighbour. Around the same time it comes to Phil’s attention that her sexually clueless, emotionally retarded clodhopper of a husband is engaged in some sort of affair with Red the Twit (female) in Ballina. Phil accepts both shocks with the philosophical equanimity typical of the experienced Irish mammy.
Jimmy’s father does not share her maternal tolerance. When he finds out that his son is gay, he cuts off whatever limited communication he and his child enjoyed previously, and, more drastically, Jimmy’s student allowance. Jimmy exacts revenge by emigrating to the United States, pouring salt in the wound by enlisting with the US army. He is dispatched to Iran and then Afghanistan. His eventual fate is predictable.
It all drives Our Woman more nuts than she was to start with. Thanks to her covert observations of Jimmy and his lover in action in the haystacks, her curiosity about the carnal is aroused, and she forms a liaison with a Syrian security guard, Halim, whom she picks up in Ballina public library. With him she tries to re-enact Jimmy’s sexual positions, partly in order to understand what makes her son tick. “She wanted to be both her son and the man who hupped him.”
Halim is co-operative but has his own agenda: he seems to want to get pregnant, or become a woman. (This part I found difficult to understand.) The sex scenes are very well written but, as the interest of Phil and Halim in the subject is essentially forensic, naturally lack feeling. Jimmy is the only character in the novel who is sexually alive – but he’s not around for long.
So far so Irish, wacky and surreal. There’s a good bit of paddywhackery in the mix, in modern garb, as well as humour of dialect and laughs at country bumpkins, the sort of slapstick that has been on the go since at least the time of the medieval French fabliaux , when townies discovered that country folk are so terribly ridiculous.
Malarky also offers a fairly sensitive exploration of another old theme, namely the loving mother-son relationship. It's the story DH Lawrence and John McGahern wrote from the son's point of view, in more realistic mode and lyrical prose. Here, refreshingly, we get it from the perspective of a wisecracking mother. The love of her life is Jimmy, not her husband, not Halim the Syrian and certainly not her two daughters, who are – tellingly, I think – marginalised to the point of extinction. When Our Woman loses Jimmy she goes round the bend, as Emma Donoghue indicates in an exceptionally accurate blurb on the cover.
The novel comprises 20 episodes, not chronologically arranged, but has a tighter, smarter shape than this scheme might portend. A stylish book, it is narrated mainly by Our Woman, in a sort of generic Hiberno-English – though a few usages (such as "nowt", and "sat" in lieu of "sitting", as in "the wellies were sat under the table") have strayed in from somewhere far from Co Mayo. In general, though, Our Woman's voice feels authentically Oirish; it is lively and entertaining, and the pages teem with sharp, original observations and arresting one-liners: "She delivered her verdict in sleek, clipped sentences, like ham coming off the slicing machine." Or "This fella needed attention the way birds need nests."
Anakana Schofield has a perfect mastery of the voice-based mode of writing – for decades, within these fictional shores, more or less the exclusive territory of Roddy Doyle, but which we encounter more and more in the latest wave of novels, by Emma Donoghue, Mia Gallagher, Kevin Barry, Ciaran Collins, Donal Ryan and John Boyne, among others. It favours young, often male narrators, or people who are not the full shilling. The style may be influenced by teenage fiction, where first-person narratives in colloquial language are common. It may also be influenced by the dramatic monologue, and it comes as no surprise to learn that Schofield, who lives in Canada, where this novel has already won at least one award, has written plays and worked in the theatre.
Our Woman has a playwright’s impatience with description. “I don’t know why people talk about the sky and trees in books. I find very little to say about them myself. It’s a bit like talking about the wallpaper. They’re there.” The elimination of physical setting is a feature of much of this voice-based writing: characters interact in places that could be almost anywhere, were it not for the funny way they talk. They operate on an empty stage, without the sky or the fields, or any of that rich backdrop so intrinsic to the texture of 20th-century Irish novels.
Dispensing with the dimension of place lends to the interesting abstract effect of the new writing. There is a risk, however, that a desirable aesthetic layer – that is, beauty – is tossed away with the bathwater of pedantic realism.
Another risk with this kind of writing is that it can sacrifice depth for glibness, understanding for entertainment – that life’s deepest experiences are reduced to just one big laugh. The best writers of this school, however, manage to balance comedy and tragedy, to combine the verbal virtuosity and high jinks of the comic vision with intelligent and sensitive insight into people’s lives and hearts.
And Anakana Schofield is in the ranks of the best. She weaves her words well and demonstrates many of the gifts that the novelist has to own. This novel is deeper and more thoughtful than it seems. Clever, witty, imaginative and intriguing, Malarky is a stunning debut from an exceptionally good writer.
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne 's latest book is The Shelter of Neighbours. She teaches creative writing in the school of English, drama and film at University College Dublin