An old fashioned Irish American saga

by John Boland

When is a long novel too long? The question arises with Matthew Thomas’s much-heralded debut, We Are Not Ourselves, which covers 60 years in the life of Irish-American woman Eileen Tumulty and runs to 620 pages.

That may strike some readers as very long indeed, though the book is so absorbing that it never becomes tedious. Nevertheless, after about 400 pages I felt I’d learned all I really needed to know about Eileen’s aspirations and predicaments and by the end I was convinced that this sprawling narrative of domestic life could profitably have been reduced to those 400 pages.

Plainly, though, Thomas’s publisher didn’t see it that way and thus didn’t see the need to employ a rigorous editor. In fact, the novel aroused such interest at last year’s London Book Fair that a bidding war ensued and the 39-year-old author – a schoolteacher in New Jersey – ended up with over $1m dollars for the American rights and a six-figure sum on this side of the Atlantic.

I’d imagine that what appealed to both Simon & Schuster in the US and Fourth Estate in the UK was the book’s reassuringly traditional approach to storytelling – this is a very old-fashioned novel that eschews any fashionable modernist tics, relying instead on the author’s impressive expertise in making the uneventful course of ordinary lives interesting to the reader.

Not a lot happens here, just as not a lot happens in most people’s lives. There’s the young Eileen’s upbringing in the New York borough of Queens with a charismatic but volatile Irish father and an alcoholic Irish mother. There’s her courtship with earnest science student Ed and her marriage to this loving and caring but moody man.

There’s the eventual arrival of a baby boy and her aspirations for him, along with her own determination to escape the confines of Queens for a socially better neighbourhood and a vaguely imagined better life. And then there’s the slow onset of Ed’s early Alzheimer’s and of how this inevitably alters her dreams and her perspectives.

Thomas’s gift is to take these humdrum aspects of married and family life and celebrate their very ordinariness with observations and insights that encourage us to look afresh at how we relate to each other as lovers, spouses, parents and children – son Connell providing the narrative viewpoint for many of the book’s later chapters.

Ed’s Alzheimer’s is brilliantly captured, too, in all its increasing stages: the torment and rage of Ed himself as he attempts to fight this unwinnable battle before helplessly succumbing to it; the distressed pragmatism of Eileen as she seeks to cope; and the shaming anger and occasional loathing Connell feels towards his father.

All of this is superbly handled and yet as Ed’s illness drags on and on, the reader (this reader, anyway) begins to wonder if it all might not have been compressed into a more urgent and telling narrative.

Certainly, the book’s resolution, if such it may be deemed, might persuasively have occurred anywhere in the last 200 pages.

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