Nuala O’Faolain first achieved fame in the United Kingdom as a columnist for the Irish Times. By her career choice she followed in the footsteps of the father she both loved and felt abandoned by, Tomás, better know as Terry O’Sullivan, Ireland’s first society columnist. Almost There, O’Faolain’s second memoir, reiterates her feelings about her childhood and her parents, especially her neglectful, alcoholic mother. It discusses O’Faolain’s life during the six years following the first memoir and offers many insights into her process as a writer. Her writing at times is deeply self-revelatory, even confessional; at other times, the book is more a series of fascinating essays than a memoir.
The book’s first chapter overlaps the end of her previous memoir, Are You Somebody (1996). Having just ended a fifteen-year relationship with Nell, a well-known Irish writer and activist, O’Faolain is depressed and despairing, believing that she will never again have happiness in her life. From this low point comes her first memoir. Expecting it to have only a small audience of people who were already fans of her newspaper columns, she made it quite personal. The book became a huge success in Ireland and later in the United States, and she credits that success and acceptance with bringing her from a depressed and lonely state of mind to the more exuberant situation she found herself in when the second memoir was published.
The chapter “Germination” depicts the challenges she faced in trying to write her first memoir. Although she had been a professional writer for decades, attempting to make herself the subject of her writing so challenges her that she signs up for a writing class. Memoirs, she learns, are a unique form of writing, presenting the truth from one point of view, seldom shared by the other persons involved. “Novels are complete when they are finished, but the memoir changes its own conclusion by virtue of being written. The words it chooses to describe relationships are another development in those relationships.”
The chapter “Joseph” tells of her unexpected affair with an older married man she met in a family pub in northwest Ireland. Nearing sixty years of age after her long relationship with Nell ended, she had doubted that love or lust would be hers again. The affair with Joseph began after a night of heavy drinking; although she expected it to be a one-night stand, it continued for more than four years. Some readers, especially feminists—of which O’Faolain counts herself one—may cringe to see a woman of her intelligence and means settle for what appears to be a one-sided and debasing relationship with a man who can barely write a postcard and who shows little concern for her feelings. Readers familiar with her background may infer that his constantly referring to her as “my little girl” in some way assuaged her need for the love she missed from her father. Those who have read O’Faolin’s novel My Dream of You (2001) should recognize Joseph as the basis for Shay, the protagonist’s lover. O’Faolain says that her obsession with Joseph also helped her to write the novel’s subplot of an aristocratic Englishwoman’s affair with an Irish servant.
In “Public and Private,” O’Faolain pulls back from more personal matters to report on her experiences living in Belfast as a reporter for the Irish Times, the three winters she lived in Manhattan, and her experience of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. One of O’Faolain’s strengths as a journalist is her ability to draw relationships between seemingly unrelated events. She was born and raised about two hours from Belfast. Northern Ireland shares a small island, a language, and a culture with Ireland; nevertheless, the chasm between the two countries is so severe that O’Faolain had a difficult time writing the small, intimate pieces for which she was known.
“Responses” opens with O’Faolain sharing letters she received after her first memoir. She believes that one reason Are You Somebody evoked thousands of letters was that the painful relationship with her mother is a universal theme. She also realizes that in some ways the letter writers invented her, shaping her to their needs in their minds, as she invented the characters in her novel. This chapter provides additional insight into the writing process in her first novel, showing how change in her novel’s heroine coincided with the change in herself. In one example, she named her heroine’s brother’s cat Furriskey, the name of a cat owned by a man with whom she had a failed relationship. She used the cat to illustrate reconciliation and contentment, rather than pain and loss—one of her many tiny acts of redemption. In...
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