Reviewed by Bob Williams
by Emma Donoghue
2007, ISBN 0-15-101297-8, $25.00, 336 pages
Emma Donoghue, of Irish birth now living in London, Ontario, is a novelist, playwright, and historian. She has, among other books, written eight works of fiction.
This novel relates the love affair of two women. One is the curator of a small museum in a Canadian community of 600 people and the other is an airline steward who lives in Dublin. They meet as Jude travels to England on an emergency errand regarding her mother. Neither of them can forget the other and it is after some weeks that they begin to correspond. Jude’s mother has died and Síle (Sheila) comes into her life as a welcome respite from her grief.
Síle does not appear Irish since she is the child of an Irishman and a woman from India. She has a slightly older sister and is in her late thirties. Jude is twenty-six. As we first see Síle at home in Dublin between flights, we find that she has a comfortable – and unexciting – relationship with Kathleen. Each has kept her own apartment and Síle begins to find the sexually unfulfilling life with her companion unendurable. The break-up, when it comes, is unpleasant and Kathleen is bitter.
Around both Jude and Síle are clusters of friends who assist or hinder the new pair of lovers. Jude was married to a local man. In fact, as it turns out, she still is because he has been too improvident to provide her with a divorce. Also a friend of Jude’s but not of Rizla her husband is Gwen. The frequent tension between Rizla and Gwen will precipitate uncomfortable moments for Jude and for Síle on the latter’s visits to Ireland, Canada. (This is a fictitious town.)
Síle’s Irish friends and family push and pull towards or away from her goals. Orla, Síle’s sister, is especially hurtful. Almost all the men and women in the Dublin setting are in gay relationships. Surprisingly, many of the women in Ireland, Canada, are also gay.
The distance between the two lovers constitutes a major problem and it seems to threaten their relationship, especially after Jude calls it off as a measure of the frustration that she experiences as a result of their separations and infrequent meetings. Although Donoghue diversifies her novel by side-glances at the adventures of others in the respective groups, this is still the one problem on which so much of the novel turns. It is a relatively simple problem and not one about which very much can be said. This tends to give a certain thinness and monotony to the story.
But it is a good book and Donoghue writes well. The description of modern Dublin is good and it is a pleasure to read an author who is not afraid to take us to Stonybatter or Trinity as naturally as an American novelist would take us to Halstead Street or the Bronx. The reticence of some Irish writers about specific locations can be exasperating. The use of e-mail as an element in the narrative, while no longer entirely new, still remains to be explored thoroughly and Donoghue makes important contributions to this small but interesting area of our modern culture. On balance, I think many readers would enjoy this book. Although its virtues are quiet, they are real.
About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: http://www.grand-teton.com/service/Persons_Places