Philomena is a farmwife in rural Ireland. She has a dull husband, problematic children, and a small gang of “girls” with whom she regularly has cups of tea. Her life is shaped by the round of meals that must be made and housework that must be done, with an occasional excursion into town on the bus. It is on one of these bus rides that her life begins to slide out of coherence. It takes some skill to evoke a life that many would experience as narrow and limiting, and yet have the reader feel the characters’ satisfaction with it. It takes even more skill to show a person utterly convinced of the logic of her madness, and even as the reader sees that it is mad, easily accepts that the protagonist doesn’t experience it that way. Anakana Schofield skates swiftly and easily along the fine lines between various qualities of perception and makes the reader see them all simultaneously.
Malarky opens with Philomena in a session with her “counsellor woman,” whom she refers to as Grief. That should be a clue to how the book will unfold, but the biting wit and deeply pleasurable rolling power of the writing carry the reader a good long distance before she begins to feel the weight of sorrow for herself. In the meantime there is plenty of humour, sly as it often is. The fact that Grief addresses Philomena as Kathleen, for example. What kind of grief counsellor mistakes the name of a bereaved client? In this case, a grief counsellor who advises her client to “scrub the kitchen floor very vigorously” in order to stave off disturbing thoughts. The kind who, when that doesn’t work, agrees that the devil “very well might” target widows.
This is a brilliant book. Finely drawn, deceptively muscular, and pulsing with warm intelligence and wit, it offers a reprieve from despair no less profound for coming very much at the last moment.
Malarky is studded with fabulous sentences. Page after page, the reader is thrilled by vivid turns of phrase like whiffs of ammonia that tunnel up into the brain with a pungent combination of discomfort and unexpected pleasure. Anakana Schofield’s language carries the sharpness of Irish speech; she uses it to reveal the incisive powers of observation with which our heroine carves her perceptions of the ordinary life around her, and excavates the truths – emotional and practical — that the world tries to keep buried.
Having read the first couple of episodes (the book is “a novel in episodes” rather than chapters – another clue, perhaps) and hardly believing my luck, I was not surprised to find that this excellent piece of writing is published by Biblioasis, for it reminds me of nothing so much as the short story collection boYs (stories) by Kathleen Winter, also published by them. Some of those stories made me laugh out loud: the same kind of wondering laughter that came over me while reading Malarky, where you can’t stop yourself from laughing — but you are afraid to breathe in because your heart is so high up in your mouth it blocks your windpipe. There is a music that both works share, as well as a relationship with grief (not Grief). The tension between the small life and the struggle to be fully oneself is also found in the stories of another Biblioasis author, Alice Petersen, whose collection All the Voices Cry has just appeared.
The folks at Biblioasis seem to have a fine eye for writers of subtle strength, tensile humour, deep emotion, and highly polished skill.