Are You Somebody?: The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman
Owl, 1999 (1998)
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Reviewed by G. Hall
re You Somebody?
is the acclaimed memoir of well-known Irish journalist Nuala O'Faolain. It covers her life from childhood and coming of age in Ireland of the 1950's; to time in university in Ireland and England in the 1960's; and her professional life as a teacher, BBC broadcaster and later a journalist. The latter included experience as a well-regarded columnist for the Irish Times. The author portrays an Ireland dominated by the conservative religious views of the Catholic Church. This was before contraception became legal, when a woman's place was definitely at home having children. O'Faolain mixed with many prominent English and Irish writers, artists and politicians. She includes anecdotes which, while interesting, may be confusing to North American readers who are unfamiliar with the players. She also depicts the high prevalence of drinking and alcholism in Irish life.
owever the extraordinary popularity of the book is more due to its candid account of her personal life. O'Faolain was the oldest of nine children in a poor and troubled family. Her mother, worn out from pregnancies and raising children, retreated into books and alcoholism. Her father, a well-known Dublin writer, was often absent. O'Faolain struggled all her life to find the love and emotional warmth that she missed in childhood. She is a wonderful writer who effectively uses evocative metaphors. One striking example is her description of being removed as a child from the turmoils of her parents' relationship. She says '
I didn't know much about them, though down on the floor of the ocean, where I lived in my child world, I could sense disturbances up on the surface of the water
'Faolain is brutally honest in describing most aspects of her life including many love affairs and her own difficult battles with drinking. She reveals her own shortcomings and does not avoid responsibility for her actions. There is only one area of her life where she is surprisingly evasive. This is her long relationship with the openly gay Irish journalist Nell McCafferty. She says '
We lived together for nearly fifteen years, and it was the most life-giving relationship of my life
'. However, she is very reticent in the book about the exact nature of their friendship and the reader will only learn about its full extent from other sources.
'Faolain was ahead of the women's movement in Ireland and struggled to establish herself in a male-dominated world. On the one hand she tried the
calling as a wife and mother. At the end, finding herself middle-aged, alone without a partner or children, she asks the title question '
Am I Somebody?
' Is a woman on her own still someone when she is not defined by others? The new paperback edition includes a long and interesting Afterword that has O'Faolain's reactions to the many responses she received after the book's original 1996 publication.
ll in all, this book has many virtues and a few faults. The excellent writing style coupled with the frank portrait of both public Irish life and O'Faolain's personal struggles to self-awareness are admirable. On the other hand, it's easy to become impatient and wish the author would pull herself together and stop drinking and pursuing disastrous love affairs. However, the virtues of the book greatly outweigh its flaws and I recommend it.
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