IF YOU want to know why Alice McDermott is such a fine novelist, consider the opening lines of her new novel.
Bloomsbury Circus, £16.99
“Pegeen Chehab walked up from the subway in the evening light. Her good spring coat was powder blue; her shoes were black and covered the insteps of her long feet.”
On the face of it, unremarkable. Look again. See how subtly they’re infused with spring’s hopefulness, with movement: an ascendance from the bowels of the city, and that splash of celestial colour, only to come clunking down on the strangely specific description of shoes. Why? It’s the contrarian in her, the lover of dappled things. She understands that nothing is unalloyed, not kindness or cruelty, not gladness or despair. Here, in deceptively ordinary language, she evokes both the world of light and that of darkness, as well as the touching incongruity of choosing sensible shoes and that impractical shade of blue. Indeed, we soon learn that the coat is marred by soot and that Pegeen is fatally flawed.
But this isn’t Pegeen’s book; it’s Marie’s. Aged seven in that opening scene, Marie is a born noticer, despite her need for thick eyeglasses and the myopia that will dog her all her days. Yet her magpie gift for observation isn’t coupled with an ability to decode the meaning of what she sees. Without drawing conclusions, she apprehends the smudges and rips on Pegeen’s clothes; the way Marie’s own father, who ducks nightly into a speakeasy, develops a tremor and “swollen yellow flesh”. She notes, but doesn’t interpret, the fact that her older brother, Gabe, after abruptly leaving the priesthood, is oblivious to the flirtations of girls.
Narrated by a much older Marie, the novel looks back on her life – from her childhood in 1930s Brooklyn as the daughter of Irish immigrants, through the years of her marriage on Long Island raising a family of her own, to her dotage in a nursing home. As such, it has the quality of a slide show, but one that’s jumbled, so that an image of the child Marie waiting on the doorstep for her beloved father is succeeded by an image of a pregnant Marie fainting in a deli, and the chapter in which one of Marie’s grown daughters takes her for cataract surgery precedes the chapter in which Marie first brings home the man she will marry.
Each slide, each scene, from the ostensibly inconsequential to the clearly momentous, is illuminated with equal care. The effect on the reader is of sitting alongside the narrator, sharing the task of sifting the salvaged fragments of her life, watching her puzzle over, rearrange and reconsider them – and at last tilting herself in the direction of discerning their significance.
This is a quiet business, but it’s the sense-making we all engage in, the narrative work that allows us to construct a coherent framework for our everyday existence. It’s also a serious business, the essential work of an examined life, and a novel like this raises questions about why, though critically and commercially successful, McDermott is not greeted by the fanfares of fame that some of her male contemporaries could expect to receive.