Fresh Writing and the the Rediscovery of Eden: Nuala Ni Chonchuir’s Novel “The Closet of Savage Mementos”

I deliberately stayed in bed to finish Nuala Ni Chonchuir’s new novel, hot from New Island Books this month. It’s not often I urgently want to keep reading to see how things will turn out for an assembly of characters, but with such a sparkling and interesting protagonist as Lillis Yourell, the art-photographer with a ‘history’, I ditched all plans, sat in a heap of Marmite and toast crumbs, sipped at a brew of coffee and kept reading until the final, satisfying sentence.

That Ni Chonchuir’s writing is fresh, arresting and different has frequently been remarked on. She belongs to the pitiably small breed of female authors who do not prettify sexuality or physicality, and whose characters are fleshly, sensuous creatures as at ease with the rhythms of their bodies as they are with the rhythms of their minds. That’s one thing. The other thing is that she tells good stories, whether writing short fiction or long. In the case of this novel, her protagonist Lillis leaves Ireland back in the early 90s after the death of her longtime friend Donal and arrives in Scotland. Donal’s unexpected death, we are given to understand almost immediately, is tragic and traumatic, and indeed the many flashbacks that intersperse the Scottish narrative reveal her fixation on this one event and the loss she has experienced. Almost immediately she encounters love in the form of Struan, her fifty-something employer, soaks up new surrounds and telling encounters, then leaves unexpectedly for reasons which I don’t want to give in case I spoil anybody’s reading. What I can reveal though is that her brother Robin later refers to Struan as ‘another quixotic arsehole’. But it’s not quite so simple, and the quixotic man in question is very much his own man, but not in a way that Lillis could ever have anticipated.

In fact, each character created by the author is endowed with their own humanity and complexity. This is one of the novel’s strengths. There is not a single stereotype within its pages, and all the standard character tropes, in Ni Chonchuir’s hands, are upended and require the reader to sit up and pay attention.

She is superb on the sometimes prickly bonds between mothers and daughters; she is compelling on childbirth and its strange, sick-with-love-and-fatigue days, its mysterious passions, its physicality, its emotional, current-like drag that almost sweeps the mother beneath the surface of what is called normality; then there is the newly metamorphosed shape of the Irish family, and in her hands we observe how we are possibly better nowadays at the matter of extending the family into new shapes as marriages break up and new partners are acquired.

One of the book’s most interesting characters is Lillis’s artist-cum-taxidermist mother Verity, who specialises in turning roadkill into art. Alcoholic, a onetime bad mother herself if we can trust Lillis’s account, unreliable, negative in her responses to her daughter, constantly mirroring a certain blackness at her daughter, she is nevertheless revealed to be a woman of considerable substance. Ni Chonchuir never falls into the lazy portrayal of an older woman as someone slightly dotty and boozy, investing real experience and intelligence in a woman of great complexity.

But Lillis’s journey between Ireland and Scotland and back to Ireland again is a twenty-year one that takes her deep into herself and forces her to travel the hard roads of many kinds of losses. It is only when she marries and then becomes a mother, twenty years later, that we realise the painful toll of her experience in Scotland many years before, as she attempts to ride the intense, sad-sweet passion for her new baby daughter but finds herself instead reefed with loss, confusion and anger. In some ways, she is coming to terms with motherhood and loss of self, but on another level she is coming to terms with the common enough experience of being badly mothered, and with the realisation (perhaps), that in adult life she need not have felt so responsible for a mother who has sometimes seemed both negative and indifferent to her daughter. Lillis is the girl who becomes the woman who appears strong no matter what. And she is strong because she is self-aware and honest. As a mother herself, we know she will triumph.

I must confess to pausing a little at the book’s title, intriguing as it is, but that may be partly because it implies for me a Magical Realism which is not the stylistic hallmark of this novel. Narrated in a contemporary realist mode using televisual techniques, this is writing that takes no prisoners. Throughout, Lillis Yourell rejects whatever is inauthentic, smug, cosy, whatever repels the human spirit from being its best. That rejection exacts a high price, but it is entirely within Lillis’s reach to find her way to a human place and space in which memories can once and for all be derailed and the present entered into, a present which is vivid, luscious with life and in many ways its own Eden.

4 thoughts on “Fresh Writing and the the Rediscovery of Eden: Nuala Ni Chonchuir’s Novel “The Closet of Savage Mementos”

  1. Having read several books recently that I really had to work to wade through, this one reinstated my love of reading. No it is certainly not smug, I couldn’t put it down

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