Author: Nuala O’Connor
Publisher: New Island
Reviewer: Caoimhe White
Release date: 10 April 2021
Literary celebrations of the lives of the women woven into the fabric of history are taking a stand: A Ghost in the Throat (Tramp Press) by Doireann Ní Ghríofa made waves last year for its illumination of the life of Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, the wife of Art Ó Laoghaire. With this publication, Ní Ghríofa was carrying on the torch of other authors who have themselves commemorated historical female voices: Nuala O’Connor is one such author. Her 2015 novel, Miss Emily (Sandstone Press/Penguin), was a reimagining of the life of Emily Dickinson, and her most recent work of biographical fiction, Nora (New Island), honours Nora Barnacle Joyce.
Nora is an ode to the wife of James Joyce in all of her fully formed personhood. Although it doesn’t hide the reality of Nora’s livelihood having been dependent on the whims of an unstable, albeit talented, writer, it ensures that Nora’s inner voice is respected in its own right. O’Connor’s Nora loves her ‘Jim’ and is unwavering in her support of him – ‘But Jim is sure of himself, sure of his path, and what can I do but hold his hand and trot along with him?’ – but she carries little sentimentality for his writing. She is an altogether practical woman to whom the meandering, often troubled, minds of artists are alien. However, it is one of these troubled minds that comes to cause Nora repeated heartbreak throughout the novel: her daughter Lucia’s diagnosis with schizophrenia puts a shape to years of struggle between the two and torments Nora with the question of how she and Jim could have made their daughter ‘mad’. She is a woman of both strong conviction and self-recrimination.
The novel sees Nora, Jim and their two children bounce all over Europe – from Trieste to Zürich to Paris, across decades and two world wars – but their Irish roots are never far from mind, even just as a reminder for why they left: ‘the country can’t take care of its own, so it makes them grovel in poverty and pray to heaven for a sweet hereafter’. Just as they bounce between cities, so too do they bounce between circles of friends, thanks to Jim’s penchant for making ‘villains of people’. Evidently, there is a lot going on in this novel and it becomes somewhat bloated at times, suffering from detail that burdens rather than illuminates. The book’s structure works to alleviate some of this issue, however, with its short chapters maintaining a steady pace and offering small vignettes through which O’Connor can tell the story of an entire life.
The lively reimaginings of Nora and Jim’s erotic epistolatory netted throughout the novel represent O’Connor’s dedication to a rich characterisation of Nora Barnacle Joyce and, in tandem with the detailed research that went into this work, leave the reader with no doubt that posthumous celebrations of the lives of history’s most indomitable women are in good hands with Nuala O’Connor.