Thursday, July 7, 2011

Nuala O'Faolain's "A Radiant Life": Book Review

The consistency with which the late Nuala O'Faolain relates her thoughts echoes in this collection, largely of her columns for the Irish Times of Dublin. She combines erudition with no-nonsense observations, and her calm, steady, but ethical and forthright presence graces this collection. I heard some of this material on an audiobook version of her Almost There sequel to her international breakthrough memoir, Are You Somebody? and her voice can be heard as clearly on the page as on the tape. That is, a composed, opinionated, but compassionate and reasoned p-o-v.

The seventy-one entries of this collection start in 1987. The first piece looks at the Statue of Liberty refurbishment celebrations broadcast, but from an Irish view, that of the global underdog, not the flag-waving immigrant. She contrasts the Reagan years' rhetoric with the realities where the world's comprised of Sandinistas as well as Sinatra fans, and how the two may even overlap, in a vision outside the narrow patriotism marketed as entertainment, as American, she notes, as is St Peter to the Vatican.

She's a fair-minded critic of Catholic restrictions, imposed upon body and mind. Many essays explore the impacts of belief, fear, and capitulation to the demands of the Irish state and its clerical power. She also represents the liberation of an older generation from what she regards as the confines of a mental dictatorship and a physical regimen of joylessness. If you want to understand how far and how quickly Ireland's become secularized, O'Faolain offers a tangential as well as direct testament of how it happened since the late 80s, so rapidly, but perhaps because it was based on such shallow grounds. She notes in an incisive entry, "Irish Atheism", how ingrained the habits are, for communal standards and not personal conviction, to go along, from mother to child, with the system of faith that few believe but which fewer dare to challenge, for fear of upsetting the elders.

These pieces flow along often magically, as one topic one month fits into the one a few weeks later. She avoids easy sentiment and lilting cant. She's tough minded, yet open hearted, a tricky combination. Her steady output published here reflects, then, O'Faolain's curiosity, her evolution as an observer of her Dublin-based, but also Belfast and Manhattan surroundings, and how she kept her thoughts channeled as they did not drift but moved along, say, maternal lack of faith to babies once given up by the thousands by unwed mothers, to abuse in schools by clerics and nuns.

The American title's A Radiant Life but the Irish original's A More Complex Truth. The former choice pitches herself maybe as known to international readers, her vibrancy and down-to-earth quality. The latter title edges towards a knottier Irish refusal to let one opinion, one fact, one voice dominate a conversation. Each entry's short enough not to tire the reader, but long enough to engage the audience for a few minutes. This compression suits the contemplative tendency of her columns, as they mused about a point for a thousand or so words.

She finds fresh angles on familiar topics. About violence against women, she commences with her walk as night fell at 4:30 on a remote Irish island, and how surprised she was to see stars, as she realized how long it'd been back in the city since she went out in the dark alone. She laments her dental care, the death of her dog Molly, and she slowly moves, if beyond finally and inevitably beyond the last pages here (she died a year after the last 2007 column) into aging and mortality. She faces her future with admirable balance and brave rationalism, but she does not act as if she has the last answer to the eternal mysteries which she ponders, if without the conventional pieties professed, at least publicly, by most of her readers and neighbors. This broad-minded approach, combined with a patient ear and an eye tilted towards the have-nots and the overlooked, wins one over.

O'Faolain dismisses hero worship, of local boys turned idols U2, of the neighboring island's royals, of native politicians and prelates and celebrities. She does not do this out of spite, but out of morality. She does not pander to her everyday attitudes, but she explains them simply as those emanating from a well-educated woman with the right to her own informed views, and a forum to express them with as much composure as those granted pulpits, cameras, and platforms for cynical, destructive, and sinister intentions. This anthology offers a modest, but lasting memorial to her journalism. She confessed her own inadequacies at its limits, but for me, it shows how the past quarter-century felt to a bold Irish woman despite her leanings for the cozy corner and not the media spotlight.(Posted to Amazon US & 4-26-11. Featured on PopMatters May 20, 2011. )

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