Someone by Alice McDermott: A quiet masterpiece

Cover imageFor me, Alice McDermott belongs to a small, select band of authors who write slim, elegant novels, each word carefully chosen and none wasted. It includes Colm Tóibín, John McGahern and Anne Enright. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that they’re all Irish or of Irish extraction although Helen Dunmore is no slouch at this kind of writing. McDermott is well-known in the States but not so much here. Each time I read a new novel by her I think this might be the one which makes UK readers sit up and pay attention: Someone is no exception.

Marie unfolds the story of her life beginning in 1920s Brooklyn as she sits on her family’s apartment steps waiting for her father to come home from work. She’s a daddy’s girl, looking forward to the extra sugar cubes slipped into her tea which mark her out as his favourite over Gabe, the brother picked out for the seminary. The neighbourhood has its characters as all neighbourhoods do: Billy Corrigan, blinded in the First World War, plays umpire to the boys’ ball games; accident-prone Pegeen believes there will always be someone kind to help her; Big Lucy whose uncontrollable foul mouth shames her mother. Tightly knit, nothing passes unnoticed in this Irish-American community not least by the gossiping nuns at Fagin’s undertakers whose compassion often falls short of their judgement. Marie finishes school, takes up a job at Fagin’s after much cajoling from her mother, has her share of boyfriends, marries, becomes a mother and moves out to suburbia.

An unremarkable life then, but told in such light brushstrokes and with such empathy that the moments of drama stand out vividly – the unexpected death of a friend’s mother, the sudden and insensitive ending of an unhappy love affair, a difficult birth. There are foreshadowings, past events seen with hindsight slip into place, all handled so deftly and with such grace that the whole coalesces into a small masterpiece. Much is left unsaid, much for readers to infer, but that’s part of its joy. Fingers crossed, then, that Someone reaches the audience it deserves.

Anyone have any favourite authors they feel are underrated? Let me know so that I can add them to my TBR list.

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