“Someone” by Alice McDermott (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25, 240 pages)
Alice McDermott is such a pleasure to read. Her new novel, her seventh, extends her outstanding body of work and further cements her stature as one of our finer writers, with one of her novels winning the National Book Award and three others finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. She is also a semifinalist for this year’s National Book Award, and will be in Wichita Friday to read from her novel.
“Someone” traces the life of Marie, the novel’s narrator, from her childhood in the 1920s and ’30s in an Irish neighborhood in Brooklyn to her old age, recovering from eye surgery in a hospital room.
The novel moves desultorily among different periods of her life, not always in chronological order, each chapter a nearly complete story in itself. Yet McDermott maintains a sense of movement and suspense, withholding information about certain characters until the right narrative moment.
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Marie grows up with her parents and her older brother, Gabe, who is bookish and devout. Marie, much less devout, is “a bold piece,” according to her mother. And her father refers to his children wryly as “one bishop … and one little pagan.”
McDermott paints a fulsome portrait of not only Marie and her family but of the neighborhood, peopling the novel with a variety of interesting characters. These include Blind Bill Corrigan, who was gassed in World War I, and Walter Hartnett, whose one leg is shorter than the other. And there’s Fagin, the undertaker and later Marie’s employer, who wants to redeem the name of one of Dickens’ famous characters.
Marie faces many disappointments—the deaths of her parents, rejection by a suitor, Gabe leaving the priesthood—but also joys—her jovial, loquacious husband, Tom, her four children. Through it all she remains attentive to the changing world around her and her place in it.
McDermott fills her book with copious detail and poetic observation, like this: “Small city birds the color of ashes rose and fell along the rooftops. In the fading evening light, the stoop beneath my thighs, as warm as breath when I first sat down, now exhaled a shallow chill.”
Or this description of Marie’s 17-year-old daughter: “There was a way her body had, in those days, of bobbing and weaving as she spoke: as if a more assertive, adult Susan—the lawyer she would become—was elbowing past the shy child she, too, had once been.”
She captures the Irish obsession with faith, with heaven and hell, but then points beyond it to a deeper reality, such as “that other, earlier uncertainty: the darkness before the slow coming to awareness of the first light.”
Tom recalls a sermon he heard Gabe preach when he was a parish priest, about Jesus healing a blind man without being asked. He tells how he remembered this sermon about God’s grace when he was in a POW camp in Germany during World War II: “It was a good thing to remember, over there. That you didn’t necessarily have to ask. Or even believe. It gave me hope.”
This sense of a deeper reality, a certain grace, undergirds the narrative. At one point, after being rejected, Marie asks Gabe, “Who’s going to love me?” He replies, “Someone.”
At the end of the novel, Marie recalls her friend Pegeen, who died from a fall as a girl. She had told Marie that she planned to pretend to fall so that “someone nice” would catch her.
In spite of life’s many difficulties and sorrows, we continue to long, McDermott makes us feel, for someone—Someone—to catch us.