“I came here in 1989 for a couple of months. I was 23. I kind of think of it as the last summer of my youth, before real life kicked in,” says Molly McCloskey.
I'm more than halfway through a 45-minute phone conversation with writer and novelist McCloskey, who is talking to me from Washington DC, where she now lives. Her luminous new novel, When Light Is Like Water, has just been published. It's the third time in the interview that McCloskey has unselfconsciously misplaced herself. The location of the "here" she is talking about, the summer of 1989, is Sligo, not Washington.
When Light Is Like Water is McCloskey's second novel. She's also the author of two collections of short stories and a striking memoir about her schizophrenic brother titled Circles Around the Sun: In Search of a Lost Brother. This latest book is a novel, although one of the blurbs on the cover, from Anne Enright, describes it as "gripping as a memoir."
Alice, the main character in the novel, is an American, who arrives in Ireland in the summer of 1989, and ends up living in Sligo for several years. During that time Alice marries a local and then drifts into an affair with another man. It’s framed by Alice’s narration from two decades forward in time, living in a borrowed house by the sea in south Dublin.
I have a really fierce nostalgia for the summer of 1989
McCloskey, an American, came to Ireland in the summer of 1989. She lived in Sligo for several years and some events in the novel mirror those in her own life. “I sort of thought of the novel as a love letter to Ireland and the past. I have a really fierce nostalgia for the summer of 1989,” she says. McCloskey is fully aware that some readers will be trawling through the pages, wondering how much of the novel is fiction and how much of it reflects her own experiences.
Not a memoir
“I certainly can’t control how the book is read, but the book is not a memoir. There are vast amounts of the book that are completely made up,” she says firmly. “I hope that it’s not read by some people as a ‘let’s go through it piece by piece, and see what’s true and what’s imagined’. I don’t think that’s a particularly satisfying way to read fiction. In so many novels, there are composites of people one knows.”
We’re told on page three of the novel that Alice’s mother, a character who is central to Alice’s story, has recently died. “My mother is 90, and very much alive,” McCloskey is anxious to point out. “I told her about the character when I was working on the novel. I said: ‘the good news is that there is a portrait of someone in the novel, who resembles you, and it is a very loving portrait. The bad news is this character actually dies in the novel’. She laughed. She is an incredibly good sport. I’m very close to my mother. I guess I was writing about that sense of pre-emptive loss and mourning.”
In the novel, McCloskey captures with a keen observer’s eye how an outsider like Alice is treated in a small rural closed community. “Ireland is not a porous society, it doesn’t open itself easily,” McCloskey says. She doesn’t mean it as a criticism; more as an observation of a well-known fact.
For all my years in Ireland, I really felt like an observer
“To be an observer is to have a very interesting vantage point. It was so interesting to be in Ireland at that time [the 1990s], when it was one of the poorest countries in Europe. We all know what happened a few years later. Witnessing that and watching what happened as Irish people were collectively going through that time was really interesting. That’s partly what I wanted to write about in the book: the character’s loss of innocence, and also, what was happening in Irish society at that time, which was a loss of innocence.”
After living for 10 years in Sligo, from 1989 to 1999, McCloskey moved to Dublin. She shipped her belongings to the US in 2014. “When I first starting thinking of moving back in 2011, I thought I’d go back for six months, and then at the end of that time, I’d know what the right thing to do was. Of course, it just became more confusing, and deciding where to live became a very long, drawn out decision. I went to Philadelphia for two winters and I then went to DC for the third winter and that was when I decided I would stop bouncing back and forwards.”
For McCloskey, her new novel is primarily “a book about home. It’s about the different ways we make our home, whether it’s in a marriage, or in a place, or in our childhood. My character Alice obsesses about where home is, and what it means, and how will she figure out where to be.”
The question of home and its location has preoccupied McCloskey for a long time. “That preoccupation has been with me for years and years,” she admits. “The interesting thing about being in Washington for the presidential election and my personal response to the outcome of the election is that it did make me feel like this is my home.
“I felt like many American people who were feeling devastated by the result of the election. Whereas, for all my years in Ireland, I really felt like an observer. But with the election, I felt: his problem belongs to me. It felt like a death in the family. It had an emotional impact. I was fully engaged. I felt the impact of it in a way like I had never felt about anything in Ireland. Even when the IMF came in to bail out Ireland and there was a collective discussion about the shame of that happening, I didn’t feel part of the discussion. I felt more like a witness.”
So is Washington DC now the place that McCloskey calls home? “I certainly don’t feel that DC is my home, but I feel like America is my home. This is my home now, for better or for worse,” she says.
When Light Is Like Water is published by Penguin Ireland