Mary Morrissy Essay - Critical Essays

Morrissy, Mary


Mary Morrissy Mother of Pearl and A Lazy Eye

Born in 1958, Morrissy is an Irish novelist, short story writer, and journalist.

The recipient of the 1995 Lannan Literary Award and the 1984 Hennessy Award for Short Stories, Morrissy is the author of works that are known for their evocative characterizations, Irish settings, and thematic focus on women, children, and despair. Her 1993 short story collection, A Lazy Eye, contains characters whose lives are defined by bleakness. In one story, a kleptomaniac steals and then destroys books; in another, an infant is abandoned in a store's Christmas display; in yet another tale, a young woman becomes infatuated with the man for whom she baby-sits and, when spurned, exacts her revenge on his newborn child. Set in Ireland in the mid-twentieth century, Morrissy's novel, Mother of Pearl (1995), centers on three women whose lives are likewise defined by their bleak and repressive surroundings: Irene, a former tuberculosis patient who becomes so obsessed with having a child that she ultimately kidnaps a newborn; Pearl (later renamed Mary), the baby whom Irene steals; and Rita, Pearl's biological mother. Much of the novel focuses on Pearl, who, as a child, is returned to Rita. After she is reunited with Pearl, Rita is unable to integrate "Jewel," a child she invented in her mind to replace her stolen child, with Pearl's physical presence; in Rita's mind, Pearl and Jewel are two distinct individuals, and Pearl subsequently grows up in the shadow of an older sister who never existed. As she grows, Pearl experiences confusing memories of life with another family. These events have disastrous effects on Pearl when she reaches adulthood and is expecting her own child. Morrissy has been praised for Mother of Pearl's prose style and its thematic and feminist focus on obsession and neurosis; abandonment and the search for belonging; death and poverty; and the relationship between the past, present, memories, and the imagination. In a review of Morrissy's writing, Michael Harris observed: "A constricted life, a warped attempt to break out of it, a residue of essential innocence, the inevitable punishment—this is Morrissy's territory indeed."


Publishers Weekly (review date 8 May 1995)

SOURCE: A review of Mother of Pearl, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 242, No. 19, May 8, 1995, p. 283.

[In the following positive review, the critic describes Morrissy's writing in Mother of Pearl as giving off "sparks of feminist insights and gimlet humor."]

A lushly lyrical portrait of women wrestling with their inner demons, this stunning first novel [Mother of Pearl] begins in the Irish sanatorium where tubercular Irene Rivers stays from 1947 through the mid-1950s, even after she is cured. Terrified of the outside world and having been brutalized by her father, Irene endures furtive sexual encounters with fellow patients and employees while remaining a virgin; she sees her sexual ministrations as a mission of mercy. In time, Irene marries Stanley Godwin, a tender but impotent outpatient, leaves the sanatorium and becomes obsessed with having a baby, even lying to neighbors that she is pregnant. Then she kidnaps an infant girl from a Dublin hospital, telling Stanley that "Pearl" is her own child by another patient. The illusion is shattered four years later when police arrest Irene and return Pearl to her newly widowed biological mother. Pearl, renamed Mary, grows up believing that she and her biological sister, Stella, had a third, "lost" sister, Jewel, who mysteriously vanished. In a first-person narrative occupying the final third of the novel and extending from her preadolescence into adulthood, Mary conjures Jewel as an imaginary companion while struggling to reclaim the buried memories of the years she lived as Pearl. Morrissy's writing gives off sparks of feminist insights and gimlet humor, and her sensuous, lilting prose propels a sensitive study of obsession, betrayal, neurosis and lost innocence.

Barbara Love (review date 15 June 1995)

SOURCE: A review of Mother of Pearl, in Library Journal, Vol. 120, No. 11, June 15, 1995, p. 96.

[In the following review, the critic relates the plot of Mother of Pearl, describing it as a "haunting first novel."]

Emotionally needy Irene and Stanley meet in a tuberculosis sanitorium in 1940s Dublin [in Mary Morrissy's Mother of Pearl]. Irene has remained on as an aide after recovering from the disease, and Stanley, the quintessential mama's boy, has come to sit by his mother's deathbed. Their hasty marriage soon founders when Stanley's impotence causes them both unending pain and embarrassment in dealing with the speculation of prying neighbors about a hoped-for baby. This leads Irene down a dangerous path where she first fabricates a pregnancy and is later driven to snatch an infant from a hospital nursery. Amid random acts of everyday violence, the consequences of this outrageous act resonate down through the years in this haunting first novel. [Mother of Pearl is recommended] for most fiction collections.

Nancy Pearl (review date July 1995)

SOURCE: A review of Mother of Pearl, in Booklist, July, 1995, p. 1860.

[In the following review, Pearl describes Mother of Pearl as "well-written, lyrical, and terribly sad."]

Set in Ireland in the 1950s, this well-written, lyrical, and terribly sad novel [Mother of Pearl] is the story of Irene Rivers, who, at the age of 18, is sent away to a sanitarium to recover from tuberculosis. Long after Irene is cured, she stays on at Granitefield, which she regards as home. But when an act of kindness on Irene's part is misunderstood, she escapes by marrying the son of another patient and moving to Dublin with him. When Irene tells her impotent husband, Stanley Goodman, that she is pregnant, he inexplicably believes her. Like a rock gathering destructive force as it hurtles downhill, this one act of deception sets in motion events with lifelong repercussions for three women: Irene, the baby named Pearl, and Pearl's mother, Rita Golden. Skillfully shifting narrative perspectives between the three, Morrissy forces the reader to acknowledge that their subsequent actions, which include a kidnapping, an abortion, and having an imaginary child, though bizarre, are, in the end, all too understandable. This novel, Morrissy's first book to appear in the U.S., will leave readers pondering the inevitability of events and wondering which of the characters deserves their pity more.

Claire Messud (review date 9 July 1995)

SOURCE: "Nobody's Child," in The New York Times Book Review, July 9, 1995, p. 6.

[Messud is a novelist. In the favorable review below, in which she discusses the plot and theme of Mother of Pearl, Messud notes Morrissy's focus on Irish society, despair, and "the violent movement between the external and the internal."]

The narrative of an infant stolen from its parents is necessarily a double one, demanding accounts both of one family's loss and of another's joyous gain. But Mother of Pearl, a fine first novel by the Irish writer Mary Morrissy, goes further, acknowledging the triple nature of the tale: two families live through this momentous event and its consequences, but so too does the child caught between them.

Divided into three main sections, Mother of Pearl explores the internal lives of three Irishwomen linked by the theft of a baby. Their conflicts are reflected in those of the unnamed Irish city they inhabit, "a city of tribes, like twins divided at birth. At war, at war with itself." In spite of their differences, the women have in common the bitter narrowing of their horizons. They're condemned to a world of working-class poverty where sex—brutal or voyeuristic or merely failed—provides no relief from isolation, and where the only escape is departure to the New World.

The novel's opening strand, which begins in the late 1940s, follows Irene Rivers, who is plucked from her first job, on the cruise ship Queen Bea, and confined to a tuberculosis sanitarium. Abandoned by her family, she remains at Granitefield long after she is cured, providing sexual favors to the inmates out of a sense of moral obligation.

The man who rescues her, Stanley Godwin, is middle-aged and impotent. To him, Irene "offered what he knew was impossible. New life." To her, he is simply a last chance at life. Yet Irene finds herself imprisoned afresh in Stanley's terraced house on Jericho Street. There she invents a child, the impossible product of a nonexistent...

(The entire section is 855 words.)

Michael Harris (review date 24 September 1995)

SOURCE: A review of Mother of Pearl, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 24, 1995, p. 6.

[In the review below, Harris explores Morrissy's emphasis on character development in Mother of Pearl.]

The Irish are inexhaustible—here comes yet another gifted writer from that buoyantly tragic isle. [With Mother of Pearl] Mary Morrissy has written a novel about marginal people, thwarted hopes and cruelly deformed love that fairly bursts with the juice of language and compassion for her characters. So that the tragedy, when it comes, is all the more devastating.

Irene Rivers' parents abandon her when she gets tuberculosis. Her craving for...

(The entire section is 238 words.)

Nancy Middleton (review date January 1996)

SOURCE: A review of Mother of Pearl, in Belles Letires: A Review of Books by Women, Vol. 11, No. 1, January, 1996, p. 47.

[In the review below, Middleton examines Morrissy's focus on memory and the past's effect on the present in Mother of Pearl.]

This first novel [Mother of Pearl] is a painfully deep exploration of the power of memory—particularly childhood memory—to color and define a life. A tubercular child banished to a sanitorium, Irene Rivers decides early that "there was no God; there was only sickness and health." The patients and staff at Granitefield become her family until, miraculously, she is cured and then, almost as miraculously,...

(The entire section is 267 words.)

Carol Birch (review date 12 January 1996)

SOURCE: "Lost and Found," in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 9, No. 385, January 12, 1996, pp. 38-9.

[Birch is a novelist. In the following highly favorable review, she praises Morrissy's characterization and thematic focus in Mother of Pearl, describing it as an "acute, elegiac first novel."]

In Mary Morrissy's acute, elegiac first novel [Mother of Pearl] she returns to territory familiar from her collection of stories, A Lazy Eye—illness, alienation, the emotional ambivalence of parenthood, the dangers of bargaining with God. There were one or two gems there, but even the most successful tended to suffer from a sense of having tried to do too...

(The entire section is 577 words.)

Charlotte O'Sullivan (essay date 28 January 1996)

SOURCE: "Quite Contrary," in The Observer, No. 10658, January 28, 1996, p. 16.

[In the following essay, drawn from an interview with the author, O'Sullivan relates details of Morrissy's upbringing and her views on family, writing, and children.]

Irish writer Mary Morrissy does for the nuclear family what Jaws did for midnight dips. Her first novel Mother of Pearl picks up where her collection of short stories, Lazy Eye, left off: in a landscape of unerring dysfunction.

Morrissy distrusts ideas of normality. When I meet her in a Soho cafe—a corpulent figure in a shapeless gingham coat, with a crop of dulled red hair—she greets...

(The entire section is 987 words.)

Michael Harris (review date 15 July 1996)

SOURCE: "Tragic Irish Stories Blended with a Dash of Sly Humor," in Los Angeles Times, July 15, 1996, p. E3.

[In the review below, written upon the occasion of the U.S. publication of A Lazy Eye, Harris offers a thematic discussion of the work, finding the collection weaker than the novel Mother of Pearl.]

Those who read Mary Morrissy's first novel, Mother of Pearl, and saw that Ireland had produced yet another powerful voice—tragic and lyrical and slyly humorous in the Irish tradition, yet completely original—will be disappointed a little by these 15 stories [in A Lazy Eye].

For some reason, the weakest tales seem to come...

(The entire section is 752 words.)

James Marcus (review date 18 September 1996)

SOURCE: A review of A Lazy Eye, in Salon (online publication), September 18, 1996.

[In the mixed assessment below, Marcus discusses thematic and stylistic aspects of A Lazy Eye.]

The Irish have always had a gift for depicting blighted lives, and Mary Morrissy, whose novel Mother of Pearl won a Lannan Foundation award in 1995, is right in the tradition. Even a quick scan through the stories in A Lazy Eye is enough to make you grateful for your own, comparatively unblighted existence.

In "Bookworm," a tightly-wound kleptomaniac makes a career of stealing books and shredding them to pieces in the privacy of her apartment. "Rosa"...

(The entire section is 277 words.)