My Buried Life, by Doreen Finn: much to like in a promising debut
Dark thoughts cast long shadow on story of grief, fractured families and redemption
My Buried Life
The title of Doreen Finn’s debut novel is well chosen, for there is much buried within this book of grief, fractured families and redemption. My Buried Life opens with the funeral of Eva Perry’s mother, a bitter and cold-hearted woman who shunned her daughter from a young age.
We soon learn that the rest of Eva’s immediate family is dead. Her estranged father died when she was five; her beloved brother Andrew killed himself when Eva was a teenager. Returning home to Dublin from New York after 11 years, Eva contemplates how alone she is: “Orphaned at 37. And love, in all its manifestations, has galloped away.”
Eva is doing her best to bury her own life. An acclaimed poet, a university lecturer and an alcoholic, she has given up on writing and drinks to escape: “The dark thing in me appals me. It sleeps so soundly that I can forget it’s there.” Bequeathed the house in Ranelagh, along with a great-aunt in an adjoining flat, Eva decides to take a sabbatical from her job at NYU and face up to the past.
The opening chapters are promising as they clearly lay out Eva’s situation. Her voice initially captivates, explaining in lyrical and atmospheric prose her loveless upbringing and what avenues it drove her down. There is a sense of mystery, a narrative yet to be unearthed. Why did Eva’s mother hate her? Why did she drag her children away from the farm and their father to live in the city? What caused Andrew to kill himself? How did Eva break from her mother’s clutches and land in New York?
UnrelentingThe answers unfortunately remain buried for most of the book. The element of mystery falls away as Eva is too caught up in a blame game that is understandable but somewhat unrelenting for the reader. Her tendency to repeatedly explain the origins, impulses and shackles of her alcoholism have the same effect. No doubt her drinking thwarts her attempts at normality, but it can be difficult to relay such a situation sympathetically.
Eva’s childhood remains obscured for most of the book, with snippets of events given in flashbacks but never fully played out. One of the most affecting scenes involves a memory of her father praising her reading skills as a child. Other such scenes would help build a better picture of the past. The arrival of a stranger comes too late and feels like an addendum to the story.
From Dublin, Finn was educated at UCD with a degree in English and Spanish and a masters in education.
There is a lovely flow to her writing, though expressions can be grandiose – “he inhabited the land of thwarted death” – and the author’s hand is sometimes evident, particularly in the talk of Ireland’s economic woes, and more obviously towards the end, when an omniscient voice speaks of the future.
Where the book succeeds is in the present-day circumstances of Eva’s life in Dublin, which sees her take a job at an all-boys secondary school teaching English. As she tries to fit in, and resists the urge to drink, a number of romantic possibilities present themselves. She flits between the “beautiful” bartender Sean, who keeps calling her Aoife, and the cultured history teacher, Adam.
Eva, for all her flaws, is an attractive woman and these suitors draw her out of herself and her depression. It is a welcome respite from her thoughts on neglect, suicide and alcoholism.
Kindness and vegetable oilA believable cast of side characters helps to propel the narrative. From the suave older man Isaac, to a great-aunt with a no-nonsense attitude to old age, to the kindly Adam, who runs his Mercedes on vegetable oil and idolises his daughter, Finn is adept at creating memorable characters that act and speak in realistic ways. Sex scenes, and Eva’s issues with intimacy, are also well handled. Her various liaisons differ from each other but remain credible on the page.
A natural observer, Eva puts her poetic licence to good use when describing her environment. Both New York and Dublin are vividly depicted, with the differences between the cities shown through unusual details.
The returning emigrant sees that Ranelagh is “no longer a poor relative of the city centre”. The recession is shown through vacant shopfronts and restaurants closing down. As she crunches on an apple from a Ranelagh shop, Eva remembers how “the fruit always seems a day out of date” in New York. She compares American hospitality with the watery Irish welcome: “Suggestions to meet up are easily thrown around, yet rarely followed up with an invitation.”
Such insights give a pleasingly contemporary feel to the novel, with Eva at her most engaging when she is focused on the world around her and not shovelling deep at her own dark thoughts.