Holy Pictures

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

In the Roman Catholic Church, holy pictures are reminders of the lives of persons or saints. On the front side of such an artifact is the picture itself, beautifully detailed in radiant colors; on the back side, one finds indulgences or prayers, the recitation of which buys remission of temporal (purgatorial) punishment for sins pardoned by the receiving of the sacrament of penance. This custom provides the title and the organizing principle for Clare Boylan’s first novel, Holy Pictures.

When her father dies, halfway through the novel, Mary Cantwell receives from her friends numerous holy pictures. Sitting by her father’s trunk, Mary examines each of the pictures with pious attention, after which she places them on the floor of the empty trunk, closes and locks it, and places the key exactly where a jackdaw comes each night to carry shiny things away to his “heavenly lair.” Mary is surprised to find the trunk—her father’s secret hiding place—empty. When she first opened it, some weeks previously, she discovered a picture of a girl with a dark brown face, some brightly colored women’s clothing, and a bunch of old letters with one new one whose ink was still bright green and whose words promised: “Soon I come.” The trunk is kept in the Indian Room, a repository for Mr. Cantwell’s military treasures, mementos of the time he spent in India. Mary, while looking for some straw from last year’s crèche, had been drawn to the locked trunk and opened it. What she found—the picture, the clothing, the letters—was a surprise to her, as is almost everything revealed to a child from the world of adults, for no message is delivered to children straight.

Mrs. Cantwell does not even tell fourteen-year-old Nan, Mary’s older sister, that she is being groomed to be offered to an older man in the sacrament of marriage. Nan believes that her mother is to be the bride and is surprised to find out that the man wants her instead, as he forces his kisses on her and pleads that she touch him. Nan’s mother is by turns outraged and impatient. She regards Nan’s coming of age as a means to an end, a way to pay not only for Christmas luxuries this year but also for housing and food in years to come. Indeed, Mrs. Cantwell takes it for granted that Nan should be sacrificed, for all Dublin women are sacrificed in one way or another to the male ethos and male-dominated religion of their culture.

It is the “touch of the ole relic,” the Cantwells’ housekeeper Nellie says. Her husband long gone, her own children unseen, Nellie is the only person to tell Nan and Mary anything, but what Nellie says is all a mystery to the girls, for Nellie’s repertoire consists of a series of salacious hints which the girls do not understand and some half-truths about the eccentrics of Dublin—Hammer, who roams the streets at night, Shyster, dressed in rags, who abducts children and sells them into slavery, and a “darkie watching this house.” “I’ll say no more,” Nellie says, having said already both too much and not enough.

Hammer helps Mary to her own secret knowledge. In an attempt to make money so that she and her older sister can go to a showing of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Mary tries collecting loose hair which has fallen or been combed from heads. Although Mary brushes her own hair until her scalp is red and collects what she can from her schoolmates and family, the going is slow, so she takes to the streets, trying to get hair from the neighbors. There Mary meets Hammer, who towers over her, twisting a dish towel in his hands. Hammer takes Mary to his house and there shows her something that she will not reveal to Nan and Nellie because she will not break her promise to Hammer. Mary’s secret is not what Nellie guesses, although there is a symbolic relationship. Totally bald, Hammer has been trying to collect hair, too; he has collected all of his, a scant supply, and when Mary finds out his secret, she leaves him her tiny bag.

Mary seems too direct and honest to make the money she schemes to get. Her recital is a failure because she pays an adult who demands remuneration although she performs at her own initiative. Mary saves Bertie the cat when her father tries to teach him to be aggressive, mean, and strong. Mary saves Betty the hen when it is discovered that she is not really laying the egg Mr. Cantwell eats for breakfast. Mary has faith in herself. She knows that she can organize an event and make a profit, but events seem to conspire against her. Nevertheless, she acts responsibly in spite of her own losses.

Nan, too, has her problems. Because she is older than Mary, Nan’s problems relate more specifically to the sexual—her body is rapidly changing. The parties that she attends are different. Boys and girls are hanging over one another, though Nan still does not understand why, and she is hurt when her best friend, Dandy, begins to prefer a boy’s company to hers. When she was younger, Nan wanted to be a nun, a vocation smiled upon by everyone, but as she grows up she gives up the idea and falls into the company of mischievous girls.

The novel’s parade of scenes, largely comic and proceeding by abrupt juxtaposition, with little attention paid to chronology but much attention to pattern, form a series of pictures similar to Mary’s holy pictures and similar to the family pictures hung in the room that Nan shares with Mary. Around the walls in the cramped room are pictures of ancestors celebrating births or weddings or holidays. Nan says goodnight to them, her own gallery of pictures, with greater regularity and feeling than she devotes to the indulgences taught to her by the nuns for the release of souls in purgatory. Indeed, every scene in the novel is a picture—either a brief image, action caught in stasis, or a series of images with the dramatic continuity of a motion picture.

Snapshotlike images picture the corsets that Mr. Cantwell manufactures; the women who labor over sewing machines, like Doll’s cousin, whose knitting needles and position never seem to alter; and the boys leaning over a bridge at Sullivan’s Cross waiting for the sight of a dead man. Mrs. Cantwell is captured hiding behind the smoke of her cigarette; Mrs. Graham perched on her luggage; Nan binding her breasts; the Cantwell family and Nellie making a tableau, frozen into place:. . . father crouched with his reeking plateful, the children, stiff with anxiety, the cat, under the chair with its ears down, attempting to make itself invisible, and Nellie studying with interest the extraordinary look of disbelief that shrank the points of father’s eyes. . . .

Cinematic images bring alive scenes of longer duration: Mother Mary Ignatius pinning paper skirts on girls showing too much leg; Sister Immaculata, apparently fixated on the Immaculate Conception, wanting the girls to...

(The entire section is 2815 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Library Journal. CVIII, September 1, 1983, p. 1719.

Listener. CIX, March 10, 1983, p. 27.

New Statesman. CV, February 25, 1983, p. 28.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVIII, November 20, 1983, p. 9.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIV, August 5, 1983, p. 81.