Nuala O’Faolain, Are you Somebody? (1996)

This is chronologically the first book of Nuala O’Faolain – luckily I didn’t start with this one. I never seem to follow order in books: even her memoir I took in the reverse order. I started with Almost There, before tackling this one, because I feared it would be too depressing, a bit in the same vein as McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes.

It’s difficult for me to be honest with this review, because I was somehow disappointed. I chose to read all of O’Faolain books because I loved those I first discovered from her, The Story of Chicago May and My Dream of You, both fictions. When I moved to non-fiction, her 2 parts-memoir, things got uneasy.

I believe that “Are You Somebody” is brutally honest to life, to the point that sometimes you find her whining – except that luckily for us readers, the annoying page is soon redeemed by the next one where she picks herself up and fights on. It is depressing in the sense that the Irish Tourism Board would find it hard to promote anything in this portrait of an alcohol-fueled, male-dominated, Catholic-to-the-point-of-obscurantism country, but that was Ireland in the 1950-60s, not today! To her credit and Ireland’s, she also underlines the changes that occurred in the 1970s and attributes some of her success (working as journalist) to the greater opportunities offered to women and to Irish in London.

We get a glimpse at her messy life, but some areas are clearly “no go” and probably still raw at the time she wrote it, especially her relation to Irish journalist and public figure Nell McCafferty. They separated and O’Faolain had to face loneliness. Despite what she says you can see that by the end of the book she has not yet come to terms with her parents’ neglect. What I appreciate is that she tries to make sense of her life without exaggerating her own role or trying to make herself representative for a group, namely Irish women. She doesn’t try to write her life into a logical line of events and spiritual evolutions like many memoirs are. Her book is feminist, and many Irish women have reacted strongly to this memoir, but to the question “Are you somebody”, she answers “No” but means “Yes”. She professes to be ordinary, and in a sense she doesn’t have any extraordinary event to recount, yet she was a public figure (maybe that’s because she became one after the book was a success) and she knew a lot of famous Irish people (I don’t know enough about Ireland to appreciate that part). She doesn’t present herself as the self-made woman I think she was but prefers to mention other people’s help and support. Several people have saved her from pitfalls along the way, because they cared enough about her to make her continue her studies despite poverty, family problems or flirts with men that would otherwise have led her to a hasty marriage.

I’m surprised that this book has been so successful, because I find it uneven. Of course, I can’t accuse it of being unfinished, as it was a mid-life memoir and it has been complemented later, but it feels like an unedited work-in-progress. This is Nuala learning to write, and taking the first steps to assess her life, and the end is definitely much better than the beginning. But the real nice writing, in my sense, come with her next books.

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