Alice McDermott: Someone (2013)


Someone begins on the stoop of a Brooklyn apartment building where Marie is waiting for her father to come home from work. It is the 1920s and in her Irish-American enclave the stories of her neighbours unfold before her short-sighted eyes. There is war-blinded Billy Corrigan and foolish, ill-fated Pegeen – and her parents’ legendary Syrian-Irish marriage – the terrifying Big Lucy, and the ever-present Sisters of Charity from the convent down the road.

As the years pass Marie’s own history plays out against the backdrop of a changing world. Her older brother Gabe leaves for the seminary to study for the priesthood, his faith destined to be tested to breaking point. Marie experiences first love – and first heartbreak – marriage and motherhood, and discovers how time can reveal us all to be fools and dreamers, blinded in one way or another by hope, loss or the exigencies of life and love.

It took a while until the title Someone of Alice McDermott’s latest novel made any sense, but once it did, I thought it was a brilliant choice. It refers to the narrator, Marie, the Brooklyn-born daughter of Irish immigrants, an unremarkable woman whose life story becomes meaningful because it is so universal. She is just “someone”, nobody special, just a woman who was born in the 20s, has experienced the aftermath of WWII, first love, work for an undertaker, marriage, her fist child, loss, grief and finally old age. It’s a mix of intense joy and pain told in delicately evocative scenes, in which every detail is rendered with a lot of care. Some say Philip Roth is the master of writing scenes. Alice McDermott maybe his female counterpart.

“Someone” also refers to other people in the book. One girl says, that there is always someone kind somewhere and when Marie, after her first heartbreak, asks her brother Gabe if she will ever find love, he tells her that someone will love her one day.

Someone isn’t told chronologically. It moves back and forth in time, picking the most important moments of Marie’s life. If it wasn’t for the writing it wouldn’t be as impressive as it is, but Alice McDermott is a writer you could read simply for her craft.

While reading I was wondering how this book that is so deeply rooted in Brooklyn would compare to Colm Toíbín’s novel Brooklyn. Just like it is the story of one woman’s life, it’s also the story of the changes Brooklyn undergoes. The way Marie’s neighbourhood is described makes you think much more of village life than life in a big city, but then again, that’s typical of the largest cities, in which some inhabitants never venture any future than their neighbourhood. Marie is particularly attached to Brooklyn. Unlike her brother Gabe she never wanted to leave or even work anywhere else. That’s why she comes to work for an undertaker, a job she’s wary of at first. It proves to be an opportunity to learn a lot about life and loss.

Since this novel is told entirely in elaborate scenes, one more wonderful than the next, I couldn’t even pick a favourite. I loved how they were descriptive and at the same time full of hidden meanings and allusions.

It’s one of those books, I’ll read again, some day, just to see, once again, how she did it, how she captured the tiny gestures of people, the way they hold themselves, the way they speak and betray their feelings in doing so.

But I didn’t only love it for the craft. I loved it for its themes – birth, marriage, family, religion, faith, too many to name them all –  and for its quiet gentleness, the belief in kindness and the many characters who all hope for a fulfilled life, but face as much disappoinment as joy and happiness. And I loved it for some lovely insighst like this one on sleep.

All the thought and all the worry, all the faith and philosophy, the paintings  and the stories and the poems, all the whatnot, gone into the study on heaven and hell, and yet so little wonder applied to the sinking into sleep. Falling asleep. All the prayers I had said before bed throughout my life, all the prayers I had made my children say – Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be – the Confiteor if some transgression had taken place – missed the mark entirely. It was grace, the simple prayer before meals, that we should have been murmuring into our clasped hands at the end of the day: Bless us, oh Lord, and this thy gift, which we are about to receive.

I’d love to read another of her novels. Does anyone have suggestions?