Nora: Fresh retelling of life of James Joyce’s wife proves she’s no adjunct

Book review: Nuala O’Connor’s fictionalised biography of the inspiration for Molly Bloom

The Joyce family, 1924. Left to right: James Joyce and Nora Barnacle and their children, Lucia  and Giorgio Joyce. Photograph: Archive Photos/Getty

The Joyce family, 1924. Left to right: James Joyce and Nora Barnacle and their children, Lucia and Giorgio Joyce. Photograph: Archive Photos/Getty

I had the pleasure of a pilgrimage to Dublin one year for Bloomsday, replete with the requisite pint at Davy Byrne’s, soap from Sweny’s and a Sandycove swim. James Joyce set Ulysses on June 16th, 1904, as a tribute to the day he first “walked out” with Nora Barnacle. In her fifth novel, Nuala O’Connor recounts Nora’s life from that fateful rendezvous. A portion of Nora first appeared in Granta as a short story, Gooseen, which won the 2018 Short Fiction Prize.

Joycean Dublin is well-trodden ground, not least by Edna O’Brien, but O’Connor keeps the story fresh with the vivid language of her fictionalised biography. A chambermaid from Galway, Nora’s voice is frank and earthy. “The river smells like a pisspot spilling its muck into the sea,” she tells Jim as they walk along the Liffey.

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