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Woven tales of Irish life and family


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001

In 1996 Nuala O'Faolain's Are You Somebody?: The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman brought the Irish Times columnist international acclaim. O'Faolain's remarkable work is one of several candid memoirs published in the last decade that blew the thatched roof off the romanticized and quaint cottage of Irish propriety. Like Peter Sheriden's Dublin 44 Made Me, Are You Somebody? depicted the woeful lot of Irish women, sexual abuse in the church and the widespread disregard for conventional notions of chastity and sexual morality. O'Faolain was stunned by the reception of her memoir: Mail from Irish people of all ages praised her openness and honesty about sex, lesbian love and unhappy families.

In her new novel, My Dream of You, it is not surprising that O'Faolain sticks by many of the themes in her memoir. The narrator Kathleen de Burca (Irish for Burke) and the author, after all, share a great deal. O'Faolain went to Oxford and worked as a journalist in London for a number of years. Kathleen has spent most of her adult life based in London as a travel writer, moving briefly in and out of exotic locales. More important, the author and her character also share the struggle to find sexual fulfillment as a single, middle-aged woman as well as hatred for father and pity for mother, strained relations with siblings, close friendships with gay male colleagues and an increasingly feminist view of the treatment of women in Ireland.

This complex novel actually gives the reader three books in one. The first is the story of Kathleen who returns to Ireland to visit family and mourn the death of a colleague. In England, Kathleen is eternally Irish (a woman at a dinner party in London lobs a potato toward her plate). But when she returns to Ireland -- just as she's feeling more Irish herself -- Irish folks mistake her for an American or a Brit.

A second narrative emerges during Kathleen's extensive stay as she recalls intermittently her past relationships in evocative ways.

Finally, the third thread that binds this book together is Kathleen's research into the historic Talbot divorce case of the mid-19th century. She is drawn to this tale, set against the backdrop of the potato famine, because it pits the English and Anglo-Irish against the peasant Irish as well as involves the sexual taboo of relationships across class lines. (O'Faolain's own absorption in this piece of Irish history echoes the interest of other contemporary Irish writers: Both Edna O'Brien and Gerry Adams begin their memoirs hundreds of years before they were born).

O'Faolain recreates the Talbots with stunning conviction, using both authentic records and imagined scenes. In 1847, during the height of the potato famine, Marianne and Richard Talbot moved to his family's estate in Ireland with their daughter. Three years later he accused his wife of having an affair with the Irish groom William Mullan. Talbot finally sought dissolution of marriage in the House of Lords. Marianne was committed to an asylum.

All three of the narratives in My Dream of You are concerned with the search for love and passion. Much of the book involves looking for a suitable man, if not for marriage, at least for a regular relationship. For Kathleen that man seems to be Shay, someone with whom she has spent a handful of rewarding days and nights. Kathleen's view of marriage has been spoiled, either by her mother's miserable one or by a sense that she'd be bored and unfaithful. But even Shay wonders what she sees in him, a gardener -- and not even a great one, a guy who struggles with impotence and high blood pressure.

A novel about hunger of various types -- especially the hunger for a real human connection -- My Dream of You is richly Irish in its earthiness and depiction of family. At times sexual need is described in terms a bit florid, but O'Faolain undercuts these moments with a good deal of humor. Political and historical themes are interwoven, but ultimately what the book gives us are ordinary lives: people at odds with tradition who still want to return home.

- Kathleen Ochshorn teaches at the University of Tampa and is a fiction editor of Tampa Review.

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My Dream of You

By Nuala O'Faolain

Riverhead Books, $25.95

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