The Woodcutter and His Family by Frank McGuinness
Playwright Frank McGuinness photographed in the Abbey Theatre, Dublin. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times
The Woodcutter and His Family
Whether the world needs a fictionalised account of the final days of James Joyce’s life is open to debate. Frank McGuinness has gone and written one just in case it turns out we do. McGuinness is best known as a prolific playwright, and The Woodcutter and His Family, which is his second novel, nods to that metier in its structure: the bulk of it comprises a quartet of monologues narrated by, respectively, Joyce’s son, his wife, his daughter and the man himself (all appear pseudonymously).
These have a soliloquising plaintiveness, interspersing wistful reflections with unhappy recriminations and anecdotal reminiscences. The juxtaposition of wife and daughter, who were implacably estranged, is particularly poignant. ‘Bertha’ (Nora) laments Joyce’s overindulgence of his daughter and all but gives up on her; in the very next chapter, ‘Beatrice’ (Lucia) pleads from her incarceration in a lunatic asylum, “Forgive me, Mama - do. Come and visit me. Why does she not? Was it because I call her names? I will not do that again. I promise.” McGuinness’s prose is lyrical and lively, and the book is liberally sprinkled - despite its sombreness - with a mischievous, bawdy esprit that its subject would surely have approved of.