Destination: Amherst, Massachusetts, U.S.
One more summer read before you put away your summer whites and get back to the work-a-day-world. What could be more appropriate than a book about a woman who famously decided to wear white every day? In Miss Emily, Nuala O’Connor a writer well-known in her native Ireland as Nuala ní Chonchúir, makes her American debut with a book about the quintessential New Englander, Emily Dickinson. And a stunning debut it is.
As I started reading, I realized what an enormous challenge O’Connor had taken on. First, she’s Irish, creating the Amherst of late 19th century New England–a very different place than her native land and time. Second, inevitably people will compare her style to the poetry of a renowned poet. Third, Emily had a notoriously reclusive life, making her life a difficult subject for story telling.
Where’s the drama in the life of a woman who sits in her room, peers out the cupola window on the roof, and occasionally ventures into the kitchen to bake? (I have written about the Emily Dickinson Black Cake that I make every year.) A zillion or so biographies of Emily have familiarized us with her uneventful life. Some spiced it up with speculative love affairs–with men or with women, and indeed Miss Emily leaves us wondering about the nature of the relationship of Emily and her beloved sister-in-law, Sue.
O’Connor, I quickly learned, is up to the task of juggling a challenge. First, she creates a fascinating character as a foil for Emily’s sedate life. The young Irish maid, Ada, not only breathes life into the Dickinson manse, but her quick mind and poetic expressions make her a worthy companion for the odd buy kindly Emily. In fact, Ada quite upstages Emily throughout the book.
The writing is delicious. O’Connor steeped herself in Dickinson’s poetry, so that we here the poet’s thoughts expressed in scraps that sound familiar. Fully formed they will become the poems we already know.
Matching Emily’s rather airy philosophies, we have the down-to-earth poetry of Irish sayings passed on by Ada from her grandmother or mother.
One that was very meaningful to me, because I express similar sentiments in my other website, Ancestors in Aprons, is the way that everything Ada does reminds her of her “Mammy” and “Granny.” As she greases her boots with butter, she thinks,
Even the smell of the butter brings her near to me; it was she who taught me to churn and it was Granny Dunn who taught her before that. The butter I make is the daughter of Mammy’s butter just as I am hers.
In another place, Ada is sitting with her boyfriend.
We sat on, and the sky grew black, as if all the crows of the world flew wing on wing together, a dark gathering to blot out the moon and stars. The wavery whistle of a gosling carried up from the farm below….The young goose went on to speak as all geese do, in gabbles and blasts and strings of sentences, and we listened to its chatter for a long time before it fell silent and the night was ours alone.
It is passages like these that make you begin to wonder just who is the poet and who is the unschooled Irish maid.
O’Connor, writing under her Irish name Nuala ní Chonchúir has written poetry as well as fiction, so she seems to have a visceral understanding of the way that Emily thinks and how to squeeze the most out of every word and sentence.
Because the focus here is more on words and thoughts than action, the book goes slowly. The middle section bogs down a bit and I wondered if anything was ever going to happen to either woman. But excitement breaks out in the final third of the book.
Emily describes her usual life compared to an uncharacteristic morning run through town with Ada in an emergency situation.
I remain sequestered at home by my own choice or by some reason that is mine but lives outside me. But oh, the morning air fills the lungs with such vigor when you move through it at a pace. The street air holds Ada and me, and it passes us along with a high energy, handing us from one step to the next.
It makes one wonder if Emily ever had the opportunity to do something similar, and question her reclusiveness.
Perhaps not. Here is something I wrote a few years ago with Emily’s thoughts on travel.
Ada’s character also serves to inject the dramatic (and romantic) moments into the story that a novel about Emily alone would fail to provide. Ada falls in love with one man and is injured by another. Emily is drawn out of her retreat from the world in an attempt to help the maid who has become indispensable, not just for housework, but also for companionship.
Although this is a novel, and not a biography, the reader gains a lot of insight into what makes Emily Dickinson tick as we meet her family and see her town through both her eyes and Ada’s. I began the book thinking what a large task O’Connor had undertaken, and finished with gratefulness that she manged it so beautifully.
By the way, if you’ve never visited Amherst, and it is too late for a summer jaunt, remember that the fall leaves are glorious in New England.
Note: the publisher provided a digital book for me to read and review. This is standard operating procedure in publishing, and has no impact on what I recommend to you.
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