Grief can do strange things to a person, both physical and mental. Anakana Schofield’s fabulously deranged new novel Malarky explores the effects bereavement has on sanity; indeed, it questions the very meaning of the word sanity, and summarily upends our prejudices and fears about mental illness.
For a summary of Malarky, I can do no better than quote the publisher’s blurb:
Our Woman will not be sunk by what life’s about to serve her. She’s caught her son doing unmentionable things out by the barn. She’s been accosted by Red the Twit, who claims to have done things with Our Woman’s husband that could frankly have gone without mentioning. And now her son’s gone and joined the army, and Our Woman has found a young fella to do unmentionable things with herself, just so she might understand it all…
This doesn’t mention the grief that is stamped through the novel like the writing in a stick of rock, nor the fact that the narrative jumps around in time to make sure that the reader never gets too complacent, too comfortable in a particular emotion. Characters are dead, then alive, the dead again, which plays nicely with our internalised propriety that makes us shy away from speaking ill of the dead.
If all this talk of death makes Malarky sound bleak, it is anything but. It’s a glorious, breathless romp through the mind of an immensely likeable woman, a book reminiscent of Under Milk Wood in the beautiful and unexpected cadences of the writing. It’s the kind of book a foreign student might dread having to read: the language playful, inventive, wacky, and barely comprehensible to all but the most fluent of non-native speakers; the time frame fragmented, and the narrative voice switching between first and third person with few indicators. Our Woman is an innocent, perhaps, and a little conservative, but Schofield never exploits this for cheap laughs.
It says something about the book’s playfulness and careful construction that when I discovered a whole section had been inserted into my copy twice, I spent some time making sure that it really was a mistake and not some kind of postmodern device to undermine the story so far.
Malarky is, apparently, the product of ten years of work. It will take more than one reading to do justice to this dense, layered novel.