Mia Gallagher’s own Golden Notebook
Lia Mills on Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland: not always an easy read, but it is absorbing and rewarding
Mia Gallagher’s novel’s preoccupations are as complex as its structure: national and personal trauma, grief, displacement, deracination, gender identity. Photograph: Robbie Fry
A few years ago I met Mia Gallagher in the cafe at the Lighthouse Cinema and we talked about how the gestation of some novels can be slow, convoluted, frustrating. (Full disclosure: Mia is a friend as well as an admired colleague – this is one of the perils of the writing world in Ireland: it is small; we know each other well. Do we need to say so when we make public comment on each other’s books?)
When we met in the Lighthouse, Mia was six or seven years in to writing Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland, her second novel. While she talked about its progression, she showed me her working notebook, a roomy, gold-covered journal full of an elegant and energetic script wandering off in different, strangely purposeful directions, across and down, off at a tangent then curling back up the sides of pages littered with tabs. The way she looked at this notebook, held it, talked about it, made it like a third person in our conversation, a stranger to me but someone she knew well and viewed with a mixture of exasperation, worry, affection and awe. She told me that she was figuring her novel out bit by bit, that one minute she thought she could see what it was and then again she’d see that no, it was a different thing, and then again that it was something else entirely.
I was working on a novel of my own, so this layered engagement with shifting possibilities made sense to me at the time, but now that I’ve read Beautiful Pictures I see the full extent of Mia’s difficulty – and the degree of skill she needed to bring it all together. Beautiful Pictures is every bit as big and ambitious in its way as HellFire, her first, tremendous novel. But where HellFire came to us as the distinctive, unbroken internal monologue of one character (Lucy Dolan), Beautiful Pictures is presented in sections, fragments, from several perspectives and from shifting points in the story’s timeline. No wonder it took so long for its author to get to grips with it.
This novel’s preoccupations are as complex as its structure: national and personal trauma, grief, displacement, deracination, gender identity. Characters shift in space, time and affiliation. In the early sections we don’t always know who they are or what they are to each other. Part of the pleasure of reading the novel comes from figuring these things out, guessing, anticipating. It takes risks, not least in the sections that describe the Wunderkammer (cabinet of curiosities), a kind of virtual museum through which the reader is guided, from “room” to “room”, each “room” being given its own separate section in the novel. I couldn’t help thinking about the assemblages of Joseph Cornell while reading these pages, given the range and fecundity of source material. Installations and exhibits are described, maps are drawn, dates, facts and figures are given, books alluded to. Text, photographs, statistics, maps, recordings, footnotes – the elements combine to tell a fascinating history of shifting borders and national/linguistic allegiances in what used to be known as the Sudentenland, a history I knew nothing about until I read this novel. The Sudetenland was a contested region of Czechoslovakia inhabited by German-speaking people until the end of the second World War; it included Bohemia, Moravia, parts of Czechoslovakia and Silesia/Poland. There are strong parallels between aspects of this sorry history and our own, but if I have a quibble with Beautiful Pictures, it is that these comparisons are too frequently drawn and stated, when it might have given readers more pleasure to make those links themselves.
Reading these sections in particular I was reminded of a couple of recent films with a weirdly back-to-the-future atmosphere. The Fencer is about young Estonian men who were pressganged into the German army during the second World War and severely punished by Stalin afterwards, as though they had had a choice. Anthropoid, Sean Ellis’s film about a plot to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich in Prague, has the same eerie aura of prescience. Watching both is unsettling in the context of the current violent upheavals, displacements and political shifts throughout the world. You wonder whether these stories belong in the past or suggest the future. They make us ask ourselves how we might act in times of occupation if war returns to our part of the world.
A friend who lives in London recently said that there’s been a wave of WWII films and documentaries over there, as though to remind Britain of the greatness and influence it once had and aspires to return to via Brexit.
In another conversation, Mia told me that after seeing Conspiracy, a film about the Wannsee Conference, she became briefly obsessed with Heydrich and considered writing a book about him. (Heydrich was one of the organisers of Kristallnacht and chief proponent of the Holocaust). Films like The Fencer and Anthropoid draw us closer to and deeper into Europe. Beautiful Pictures feels acutely relevant in the same way.
As our ideas about truth and government, democracy and national boundaries no longer seem quite as fixed and certain as they were, so this novel is fluid, subversive, diverse. It is about form, deconstruction and reconstruction – of bodies, gender, memory and relationships as well as of buildings and nations. It must have taken massive background reading, thinking and research and yet, apart from the factual teasers and historical insights – presented in the Wunderkammer sections rather than clogging up the narrative – the author’s knowledge and ideas are carried so lightly that a reader might never notice how much she knows, or how our assumptions are being challenged as we read.
Another admirable feature of the novel is its matter-of-fact approach to the main character’s trans-identity and sexuality, not resorting to obvious, stereotypical or appropriative images. This character, who is Georgie as a child and Geo as an adult, is not conflicted about her identity, she knows who she is. Confusions and speculation are for the other characters, only some of whom understand Georgie’s nature. The child Georgie is “he” to others but always “she” to herself. The adult Geo has a system of rules to keep herself safe. These rules change according to circumstance but are always Rule #1 when applied – another example of the subtle shifts in morphology in this novel.
Beautiful Pictures is not always an easy read, but it’s absorbing and rewarding. Mia Gallagher’s skill is such that she draws us in to the novel’s irregular rhythms, its multiple voices. Thinking about the elegant, densely-written notebook that guided her through the long and lonely process of writing a novel into existence, I’m glad that she figured out the layers and complexities of this one and how to contain them in a single work – not a million miles away from Doris Lessing’s iconic Golden Notebook, which is, of course, also concerned with identity.
And I’m really glad that Dan Bolger and New Island – who are bringing out such interesting and talented new writers later this year (eg June Caldwell, Lisa Harding) – saw the strength in Beautiful Pictures and brought it to our shelves.
Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland by Mia Gallagher, published by New Island Books, is February’s Irish Times Book Club choice. Mia will discuss her work with Laura Slattery of The Irish Times at the Irish Writers Centre, Parnell Square, Dublin 1 on Thursday, February 23rd at 7.30pm