Some years ago, while traveling in Ireland for the first time, I was struck both by how lush the country was --- as green, if not greener, than I've seen in all the tourism ads --- and by how the landscape was even more inspirational than this novice writer could have imagined. I remember commenting to my then boyfriend that it is no wonder that great writers have sprung from these verdant hills, like so many lambs from the loins of the nation's ubiquitous sheep. From Shaw, Joyce and Wilde to contemporaries Maeve Binchy, Frank McCourt and Roddy O'Doyle, the country boasts a herd of "greats," skilled storytellers and writers. Nuala O'Faolain has earned a place at the head of the contemporary herd, first with ARE YOU SOMEBODY and now in the continuing memoir of her life, ALMOST THERE.
Subtitled "The Onward Journey of a Dublin Woman," ALMOST THERE could just as easily have been titled "The Inward Journey of a Dublin Woman." O'Faolain writes in the best tradition of her Irish predecessors. Rarely sentimental or sappy, she pauses at moments in her life to reflect, to share snapshots of her history with more than just a beautifully descriptive narrative. She offers feeling that is raw, honest and often painful to read. Her story, exposed in the two volumes, is an inward look, a rich and insightful recollection of a life sometimes lonely, sometimes disappointing --- and all tied together in often lyrical language, reminiscent of her native tongue and the magic of her homeland. And lest I forget, she wields a national irreverence, a sometimes dark sense of humor so resonant of the Irish.
In ALMOST THERE, O'Faolain retells the six years that have passed since her first memoir, while going back in time on occasion to incidents that helped to inform her present self. She finds in her later years that there are still lessons to be learned from earlier moments, even from earlier gaps: "…there had been great holes in my ordinary knowledge of the world. Some very simple things have been late discoveries, which is a reward, in a way, for having lived wrong. A lot of people who were better at managing life begin to find it dull at this age."
But for O'Faolain, middle age, albeit trying, is a time of discovery --- friendship, for instance. It is in her mid-fifties when she realizes that she needs to create a "circle" about herself. She finds love again and marvels at it as if it were the first time. She compares middle age to being a teenager again: "Middle age is the least talked about of all the seasons of life, and yet it is the most exacting. It is adolescence come again at the other side of adulthood - its other bookend - in its uneasiness of identity, its physical surprises, and the strengths it takes to handle it."
O'Faolain has the unmistakable voice of generations of her countrymen and women. Impassioned and pained, exhausted and rejuvenated, she writes from a heart swelled by the mourning of the passage of time and tempered by the glorious anticipation of times ahead. I can hardly wait for the third installment of her life.
Reviewed by Roberta O'Hara on January 20, 2011