San Francisco Chronicle
By Anakana Schofield
(Biblioasis; 222 pages; $16.95 paperback)
Anakana Schofield’s debut novel, “Malarky,” explores some of the most painful, emotionally difficult subjects imaginable. Yet the book does not feel heavy so much as honest: Schofield’s sharp wit is never far away (and constantly delightful), and her protagonist is a lovable, strangely charismatic character.
Set in an abstracted, overcast Ireland, the book centers on Our Woman. Her philandering husband has just died, and her son has run off to fight the American war in Iraq after embracing his homosexuality. In the very first scene, Our Woman is receiving therapy from a counselor named Grief. Yet, typical of Schofield, this scene is not a depressing wrenching of emotion; it is an intriguing, sardonic glimpse into Our Woman’s soul.
Our Woman’s story is narrated in short, bracing fragments that let Schofield swiftly switch between numerous plotlines, telling them concurrently. One explains Our Woman’s long-delayed sexual coming-of-age and the strange, oft-confused men on whom she is determined to practice it. Another narrates her emotional suffocation throughout the disintegration of her marriage. And a third details the fraught, confusing revelations as her son’s homosexuality – indeed the idea of homosexuality itself – becomes more apparent to her.
Of Schofield’s many talents, her strongest might be for making Our Woman’s dealings with other people feel rich and multifaceted. She frequently seeds Our Woman’s interactions with caustic, poignant commentaries that counterpoint the action and reveal just how much the hyperintelligent, naive matriarch strains to comprehend herself.
Here, for instance, is Schofield’s description of Our Woman’s attempt to seduce a man over tea: “She counted thirty seconds of his faffing and then undid her neat cardigan in a practical and deliberate manner, opened her blouse, removed it and laid it out, so it would not sustain wrinkles.” There is much to praise here: the clever elision of the key word in that sentence, breast; Our Woman’s delightfully no-nonsense but distressingly businesslike approach to seduction; and the mordant humor, most felt in the last clause. We also see Schofield’s skill with easing in and out of Our Woman’s consciousness while narrating from the third person.
Our Woman’s would-be quarry responds to her hesitant vulnerability by complimenting her “good quality skirt” and remarking, “somewhat absently, [that] he’d been thinking of going on a day trip to Wales.” Indefatigable, Our Woman reasons that “she longed for the silly fella to shut up and the only thing that would shut him up was to put an obstacle near his mouth.” By “obstacle,” Our Woman means “hand,” but the subtext is clear enough, as is the dreadful frustration of throwing yourself at someone incapable of responding to the attempt.
“Malarky” is very much a book about sexuality and sexual frustration, but it is more fundamentally about the blinkers life puts on a person. Smart and absurdly proactive as Our Woman can be, she remains unable to see certain parts of herself or push through the illusions that her marriage has taught her. Schofield brings in a clearly political element when these illusions pertain to her soldier son, yet, throughout, “Malarky” makes a more subtle critique: failing to see past the margins of one’s understandings invites a failure of the imagination that hurts those you love, or attempt to.
Potent and fresh as this is, “Malarky” becomes truly compelling when Our Woman embodies an existential strangeness. In certain moments, we are not so far from Beckett’s Molloy – Our Woman comes close to enlivening not only the political and the personal but also the human. Schofield has true promise for this kind of writing, and it is there that I hope she next turns her sizable gifts, in the book that will surely follow this resoundingly successful first novel.
Scott Esposito is the author of “The End of Oulipo? An Attempt to Exhaust a Movement,” forthcoming from Zero Books.
Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/books/article/Malarky-by-Anakana-Schofield-review-3674519.php#ixzz2HXpsmT4i