I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: my favourite books are the ones in which nothing happens, except that whole worlds change.
Anakana Schofield’s Malarky fits the bill perfectly.
The world in question belongs to a middle-aged widow as she speaks to a counsellor, this after having become ‘confused’ or possibly temporarily off her nut [though she strikes me as saner than most] following her husband’s death. Between what she tells the counsellor, who she refers to as Grief, and what she tells us and what is told us via third person narration, we learn that she, Philomena, aka Our Woman, some years previous, and quite by chance, meets the mistress of her cattle farming husband, known as Himself. Turns out said mistress [The Red Twit] feels compelled to share details of the dalliance that Our Woman would be happier not to know.
And it’s not as if her head isn’t already full up with images of her son and another lad having it off in the pasture, after which he joins the military and she, Our Woman, knows, just knows, he won’t be coming back in one piece. And there’s no consolation to be found in her husband. Even if he weren’t indulging himself with The Red Twit, she cannot discuss the simplest things with him, much less anything of an emotional nature. Certainly not anything beyond cows.
In fact, he blames her for the son being ‘soft’.
So she keeps much inside herself, does Our Woman. Or, I should say, she keeps much from the people in her life. With us, the reader, she’s very good at sharing.
“The thing people don’t realize about patchwork women like me is how given to exasperation we are. On the surface, we fuss over the cleanliness of a work surface, or kitchen counter top, we notice the scum around the bath, we may, the most desperate amongst us, brasso the door handles each week, but do not for a millisecond misbelieve that as we are doing this undulating task we are not awash with rage and salty sentiment the likes of which would sting the eyes of out of the most coarse rumped pig.”
Soon enough she meets a man who is driven by strange curiosities about the mechanics of reproduction from a woman’s point of view, and, although he is slightly younger than would have been ideal, his interest in practicalities, in the anthropology of sex rather than the emotions, suits her in many ways, not the least of which for its quality of distraction. She begins an affair with him, partly to even the score but mostly to understand her son.
“Jimmy’s absence taking all of it, more than I wanted gone. No sooner is something gone than we must know more of it. Why’s that? I often felt this same way when a cow leaves to the factory. I’ve no interest in the animal, but once missing, a hole forms for her. I look for her. I miss her in a whole new way.”
It should be said the book is not about sex.
Not in the slightest.
It’s about language. The way we speak, the way we hear, what we communicate and why and how and how we pick our moments to reveal the things we do. And to whom. And then we’re back to why.
Why do we marry, love, befriend, hate? Are these even choices? What do we accept, what do we hope to change? And then we’re back to the how.
“Everything about widowhood is exhausting because you’re trying to recall, unable to recall and then expected to explain why you cannot recall. It is not as simple as living. It is not as simple as being irritated. Being alive and married is like sanding a windowsill. Maybe it is dusty, it may get in your eyes or knick your fingers but you can look at it and see there’s a windowsill. You can look at your husband and feel no need to say anything to him.
“The curse of the widow is the non-stop chatter outside and around your head. Like a television talk show where you loathe the questions, but cannot turn it off.”
I adore the way Our Woman notices the details of life even as its biggest boulders are falling on her head, the way a character “…ponders how it all went wrong, while her biro did a word search.”
Schofield’s use of language, the playfulness of it, including local dialect and turns of phrase [the story is set in the countryside outside Dublin], as well as clever stylistic choices, all conspires to convey the message of how we communicate—and is pitch perfect. Gorgeous in fact. And even though I’ll admit the sometimes unusual sentence structure and occasional [intentional] missing punctuation annoyed me at first, I couldn’t stop reading. Much like meeting up with someone who rattles on and on and you think, god, how do I get out of this, but then, something in their eyes, some gesture, some honest inflection in their voice makes you hear, really hear, what they’re saying and it’s so real and they’re sharing it with you and you realize that’s no small thing and so you listen and before you know it you’re leaning forward across the table, yes, yes, go on, you’re saying… and when it’s time to leave you make a date to meet again soon and as you walk away in separate directions, you notice not much is different except a shift in the world… by just the tiniest degree.
Reading Malarky is like that.