This is my penultimate review for 2021 and it’s an unusual one. Recently published in paperback, Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s A Ghost in the Throat made quite a splash back in 2020, winning three awards and shortlisted for several others. Having read it, I can see why. A memoir of obsession, literary detection and motherhood, it’s a remarkable book although not an easy one to write about.
This is a female text, which is also a caoineadh: a dirge and a drudge-song, an anthem of praise, a chant and a keen, a lament and an echo, a chorus and a hymn. Join in.
Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill was an 18-century Irish noblewoman who eloped with her lover, the handsome, swaggering hussar, Airt Uí Laoghaire, bearing two children and pregnant with a third when Airt was murdered. She poured her grief in to the caoineadh or keen that Ghríofa first came across at school. Nursing her third son, it becomes her constant companion and she begins to research what she can find about Eibhlín, hoping to illuminate a woman whose life has slipped between the cracks of male records. She wants this to be a reclamation, choosing to find her way in via Eibhlín’s twin sister and a book written by her distant relative in the 19th century. This is to be fitted in between the long hours of domestic chores and child rearing, the lists of things to do, ticked off so satisfyingly, work that Ghríofa loves. Despite the exhaustion, the difficult arrival of a fourth child, so nearly lost, she cannot let go of this woman who seems to haunt her, following the sketchiest of trails until it seems that no more can be uncovered. By the end of her book, her work has been recognised and domestic life has taken a different turn, at first resisted then embraced.
I creep away, struck again by how often moments of my day are lived by countless other women in countless other rooms, through the shared text of our days.
Ghríofa’s writing is gorgeously poetic, her book richly imagined as she attempts to reconstruct Eibhlín’s life. Her love of her ‘drudge work’ as she calls it is anathema to me, although we share a love of list-making and ticking, but she writes about it beautifully, weaving an intimate domesticity through her research punctuated with scenes from her life before she met her husband with whom she seems as passionately in love as Eibhlín was with Airt. Her memoir reads like a love letter to lost female achievement and a record of obsession until she understands that she must let go, both of Eibhlín and of her own domestic desires. The book ends with her translation of the work that has exerted such a hold on her imagination and sensibilities. A Ghost in the Throat is an unusual piece of writing, gripping, sometimes painfully honest and above all beautifully written.
Tramp Press: Dublin 9781916434264 224 pages Paperback