Reading Honor Molloy’s Smarty Girl is like taking a bath in language. Little Noleen O’Feeney’s world is threaded into existence by her parents’ words, throwing a scrim of delight over the reality of a poor, 1960s Bohemian Dublin existence. The beauty of the language, of the dialogue – seeing the worlds being created – is intoxicating. We’re drawn into Noleen’s delight, until we, like her, realize that those words, that scrim, can be the death of you.
Smarty Girl is based roughly on Molloy’s own background. Her da, famous actor, boozer and womanizer extraordinaire, and her American mother met at Trinity, where her mother, way ahead of her time, was doing PhD on Synge. She wrote radio plays and TV sketches with her husband, while having a constant stream of kids. They were collectors of Dublin vernacularisms. Remarkable though the real story is, what interests Molloy as a novelist – rather than a memoirist – is what interested her parents: language. And what it does.
Language is never what is seems, and Noleen is just beginning to realize it. Happening on her father back stage chatting up the dancers, she overhears him being persuaded to sack his lover:
“Yeh, Daddy says, but I know that yeh. It means no.” “I am spun out,” one of the dancers answers, “The feck of annoyances. Me costume doesn’t fit – Sorry for talking this way in front of your chiseler, but – ” I know feck, flip, eff off and f**k. Ticking the words off on my fingers.
The language makes you laugh, the yehs that mean no, the feck of annoyances, the chiseler, and the idea of the girleen anthropologist collecting language from the euphemisms to the truth. But the harder edge is there too; the child’s awareness of her father as a threat (the yeh that means no) and the seduction of language – its great sounds (the alliterative magic of feck, flip, eff off and f**k) that explode in violence (“Ticking the words off …”).
Her father, Olly, recreates a childhood scene with a couple of his siblings, one of them, Nick, back visiting from England and dying of cancer. They had put on shows for their father and Nick, dressed up in his mother’s clothes, is pushed into the fire and goes up in flames. Their father, a showman, had been reduced to “the walls of the room. ‘Cause that was all the stage he had left to him, two foot square, the front parlor.” Drunken, he beats up their pregnant mother. “Da’s version of fambilly planning” Olly says.
The escape of language, its function to dream up exits from the trapped world of 1960s Dublin, also codifies and blesses the traps. The sister, Mara, is horrified at the black humor of “fambilly planning” because it makes the horrific past funny and also redeems it. The question perhaps at the heart of the book is whether that past should be allowed redemption. “Look at you and your fancy tomorrows,” Nick says to them from his deathbed – or at least, everyone but Olly who’s off on a bender because he can’t cope. The fancy tomorrows are all there is, and they only seem to exist in words.
Molloy’s novel is anything but a downer. The sharp lines make you laugh out loud:
“Don’t want to leave Miss Winters, our teacher in first class. She is young. She is brilliant. She went to America to learn how to teach and came back with a tan and an autoharp.”
And the sheer beauty of the observations makes you want to linger: “A conductor, leather pouch slung low on his hips like a cowboy’s gun, lets go of the pole at the back of the bus drops to the street, trots to the front as the bus brakes, squeals, sags to a stop.”
Her portrayal of Dublin at that time is so evocative you can smell it (and that’s perhaps a frightening thought). For all the tragedy of the illusions spun in the Dublinisms of the time, for the tragedies they hid, you end up feeling nostalgic for the inventiveness and the imagination. The mercantile homogenization in the past twenty years of Dublin slang hides its own horrors.
As her father descends into alcoholism, Noleen emigrates with her mother and siblings to the “farlands”: “I walk the suitcases into the sky. Onto Ontario, off to Cairns, Australia, to Brewkiillin, the Boston wharfplanks.”
Molloy, who herself ended up in “Brewkiillin” writes in that Irish tradition of gorgeous, seductive language. But what I admire most is that – as beautiful, entertaining, funny and sad the book is – it is also a profound consideration of what those gorgeous words do and have done.
Simon & Schuster are bringing out an audio version of Smarty Girl, read by the author with music by Susan McKeown and guest spots by Kevin Holohan and Joanie Madden (playing the tin whistle). I suggest you have a Christmas in July, just to put both in the stocking.
By Michelle Woods
This review first appeared in New York Irish Arts Blog: http://newyorkirisharts.blogspot.ie/2012/04/book-review-fambilly-planning-michelle.html
You can purchase “Smarty Girl” here: http://www.amazon.com/Smarty-Girl-Dublin-Honor-Molloy/dp/1936846101/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1341322418&sr=8-1&keywords=smarty+girl
The Audible Audiobook is available here: http://www.amazon.com/Smarty-Girl-Dublin-Savage/dp/B007MIWAP6/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1341322515&sr=8-1&keywords=smarty+girl+audible