by Nuala O’Faolain
Reader’s Choice 12/04
I know you’re not supposed to ‘dog-ear’ the pages of a book, but even though I have the utmost respect for the written word, I folded back page after page of Nuala O’Faolain’s 2001 novel “My Dream of You” during my recent reading of it. With no Post-It’s around, I simply couldn’t help myself. There were just too many insights she offered and seemingly unanswerable questions she raised that demanded a second look. This engaging book is Irish journalist O’Faolain’s first novel and successor to her well-received memoir, “Are You Somebody? The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman”. A reader of both would note similarities in the lives of O’Faolain and her fictitious counterpart, Kathleen de Burca, a single middle-aged writer from a large Irish family.
Kathleen, almost fifty and never married, has been living in a dark basement apartment in London and writing for TravelWrite magazine for twenty years as her story begins. The shining light in her life is her gay, American colleague and best friend, Jimmy, and, might I say, we could all use a friend who dispenses advice like this: “A goddess like you, Kathleen,” he tells her, “should descend on London, not climb up into it.” So, when Jimmy dies suddenly, Kathleen is broken-hearted and painfully aware of her emptiness.
She hastily leaves her job and returns to Ireland for an extended period to research and write a book based on some legal documents she was given decades before by a former lover. These papers, which have held a fascination for her ever since, contain a legal transcript of proceedings in a divorce case from 1856 Ireland during the height of the devastating potato famine. She anticipates filling in the details of what seems in the writings to be the story of an English-Irish “Lady of the Big House” having a torrid affair with a young groomsman behind the back of her cold and perhaps cruel husband, Lord Talbot. Yes, Kathleen is a died-in-the-wool romantic who believes that passion trumps it all.
Yet, the scant bits of source material that Kathleen is able to discover throws doubt on every last aspect of the Talbot case so what she had thought would be a tidy project becomes increasingly murky. By this point the reader has come to understand that Kathleen’s own history of longing, and loving and loneliness, which O’Faolain has revealed in flashbacks throughout the story of her months in Ireland, is the captivating focus of this novel. O’Faolain achieves this with writing that is at the same time honest, sexy and wise. In the twenty-first century as well, it seems that in the matter of love, there are no clear paths and no promises of an end to loneliness. Kathleen’s final choice as her story ends shows love as the double-edge sword it can be.
O’Faolain said in a radio interview that she devoured novels from an early age because they seemed to address the questions she was so interested in: How are lives lived? Where do we find love? I count myself as one of the readers who devoured this wise novel looking for answers to some of those same questions, and finding, if not the answers, some stimulating and though-provoking reflections.