The Toronto Star
When the kids leave home and you’re left talking to yourself day in and day out, it’s comforting to let someone else’s inner monologue take over your brain. That’s what happens when you open the pages of Malarky, the first novel of Irish-Canadian writer Anakana Schofield.
Malarky is a fascinating voyage into the mind of a woman embattled but surviving during and after the deaths of her husband and son, the latter being the true tragedy from which she must recover. The central character of the book, Philomena a.k.a. “Our Woman,” is kind enough to share the running commentary of her life in an Irish patter that could easily mirror the thoughts of many women at mid-life, if in fact, mid-life these days is when the kids have left and the husband has died or departed.
Schofield admits, “I wrote that book unapologetically for and about women. I find the ordinary working class woman fascinating. I like to write about ordinary people who usually don’t get written about.”
Early on we learn Our Woman’s husband, whom she refers to as “Himself,” has been having an affair with a female known as “Red the Twit” after the latter confronts her and tells all. The relationship stale anyway, Our Woman puzzles over whether to reveal her new found knowledge to Himself or sit on it. Not a worry for long though, the shock of her husband’s infidelity replaced with a new horror, that of her son, Jimmy, engaging in sex with another man. Initially filled with revulsion at what she’s witnessed, she tries to understand it through a relationship she strikes up with a young Syrian student, Halim. The two use each other, she — trying to re-enact what she’s seen her son doing with his lover — he, to understand his own infertility.
Before Jimmy’s death, the tender relationship between the son and mother becomes an easy target for his father who accuses her of raising a soft boy. So steep is his resentment for his son, he stops paying for the boy’s education. In retaliation Jimmy signs up for the army and dies after being shipped to Afghanistan.
Schofield has intentionally chosen to have the story dart around, just as does our inner dialogue. She admits, “The word plot — I don’t even know what that is. I wasn’t interested in creating a stomping good read.” Still she has, although sometimes it can challenge the reader especially when Our Woman grapples later on in the book with Jimmy’s death. Ricocheting in and out of reality as she tries to process his death is a lot more work for the reader, but completely realistic.
Schofield who has a son, 12, acknowledges that writing about losing a child was frightening but necessary. Having lost her own father when she was 6, she admits being deeply perplexed about people dying. “Grief is bizarrely absent from the daily discourse. Because we don’t go near mortality we don’t go near grief.”
What I love about Malarky is the absolutely beautiful, almost lyrical, but very simple turns of phrase Schofield employs. Little truths like her observations that youth is not wasted on the young but that age is wasted on the old or that widows — first considered a novelty — soon become the remnants of the person who is gone.
I have just one problem now that I’ve finished reading Malarky. I seem to have replaced the soundtrack of my own thoughts with someone else’s and I can’t that Irish accent outa my head. Has Our Woman gotta a cure for that?
Georgie Binks is a former CBC reporter who has written for Reader’s Digest, the Walrus and CBC.ca.