Where found: At the Public Library leaning seductively near the door on a shelf with novels selected by the librarians. My Dream of You must have been mysteriously left there for me. Proof enough for why we have an absolute need for libraries and bookstores we can walk into: The quiet, serendipitous and crucial find.
When published: 2001. Another reason for libraries: Time gets to last longer there. Books wait for us to catch up with them.
Why I couldn’t put it down: I absorbed O’Faolain’s mesmerizing language and her protagonist’s quest: Kathleen Burke wants to write a historical novel that explores the hostilities between the Irish and English during the Great Irish Famine of the 19th Century. She draws upon her complicated and troubled life in order to imagine the hard lives of the characters she creating. There’s plenty of conflict inside Kathleen. Although she’s achieved success as a travel writer, she’s made a slew of hurtful mistakes along the way and feels homeless. What will be become of her and the book she’s writing? She’s flying fast toward age 50 and fears a lonely future crippled with regrets. Fortunately, O’Faolain resorts to no simple morality or judgements in this novel. This character’s power resides in her honesty and curiosity. How dangerous is a woman who follows her own impulses as far as they’ll go and then dares to draw her own conclusions about them? I read until the early hours several nights in a row. (And her name is Kathleen. I liked that, too.)
What I learned: To be Irish in Ireland or England is to carry a constant reminder of a sharp, aching history of oppression, one that is offset by a cultural pride that can result in incredible art. Add being female to the equation, then choose a life path that tries to avoid all the entrapments that suffocated the women and men you knew in your childhood. Then go write a novel that explores your love hate relationship with what made you who you are. It can be done, brilliantly.
Why I slept with this book: It’s fat and hefty for one thing. In some cultures it could be a pillow. I wanted to follow it into my dreams. O’ Faolain does not hurry, does not succumb to the “make every second of every page cry out with tension” mantra of contemporary fiction writing. She turns over events and moments while mining them for revelations. She soaks up and distills landscape, then hands it to readers on the palm of her hand. And she brings people together on the page and lets them stumble through their conversations long enough so they can arrive at nuance, love and raw truth. I breathed better while reading My Dream of You.
A favorite passage:
It struck me suddenly: I had never looked at my family the way I look at animals. I have never taken an unhurried look at the people by whom I was formed, wanting nothing but to see clearly, the way I look at animals or birds—appreciating them without having any designs on them. My family has been the same size and shape in my head since I ran out of Ireland. Mother? Victim. Nora and me and Danny and poor little Sean? Neglected victims of her victimhood. Villian? Father. Old –style Irish Catholic patriarch; unkind to wife, unloving to children, harsh to young Kathleen when she tried to talk to him.
Then I lifted my head as if I could smell something odd.
What was I being bitter about, nearly thirty years after I’d seen my father last, and when he’d been dead five or six years? I couldn’t not have changed. I could not be the same person now that I was when I left home. It just wasn’t possible. . . And everything that changes is alive all the time.
(From: My Dream of You, by Nuala O’Faolain)