Memoirs are so deeply personal they make me terrified. I can’t imagine ever wanting to write one. Now I know so much about Noelle McCarthy she’s no longer just that engaging, Irish voice on the radio. We’re so much closer than that. Things got personal very fast. I feel I’ve seen her naked. Why do people do this?
Saying that, it’s terrific for a reader. Who doesn’t want to wander through someone else’s thoughts for a while? Especially someone this smart and interesting. We can access their memories, become a voyeur of their lives. Judge them. A memoir is very different to a story (fact or fiction) told about someone else; psychologically a totally different thing. Noelle (usually I refer to an author by surname, but we’re intimates) tells us how she sees herself, with access to all that interior landscape. OK, so the book is ostensibly about her mother, but it’s about her. Noelle McCarthy. What a great woman.
This is chock full of Irish family life: mam, dad and the kids in working class Cork. Mam is a raging alcoholic, which defines the family. She sets the tone, brings the weather with her. Noelle is embarrassed by her, in the way every teen is by her mother, but this goes on into adulthood. To be fair, her mam is bloody embarrassing. “Along one side of her head, there’s a gauzy bandage, the hair around it is dark and clotted. She got out of a taxi and went over the wall in the front garden. Skull fracture, a small one.”
There are stories from her mother’s life before Noelle, babies given away, babies dead. We go back and forward with memories, her mam’s life, Noelle’s childhood, looking back from New Zealand or on a visit home to the family. There is a thing when you live away from your family for a while, especially if you have set up life in a different country and home feels very parochial. Hard not to pass judgment. God, they do go on.
‘If I’d known you were coming, I’d have made you something.’ Mammy is pouting. She taps the fag resentfully, into the big John Player Blue ashtray they got from a pub somewhere. I can feel the anger rising, the familiar, helpless sense of being wronged by all of them, her especially. ‘I was only trying to surprise ye! I thought ye’d be happy.’ ‘And your dad is very upset, he could have collected you from the airport.’ ‘Shut up about the fucking airport!’ They have been talking about how I got in from the airport ever since I turned up at the front door two hours ago. Why didn’t I ring anyone? Say I was coming? How much was the cab? That’s robbery. I have just spent 2,000 dollars flying here from New Zealand, and all they care about is the 20 Euro I’d have saved by having Daddy collect me.
Noelle visits over the years, first alone and then with bloke and baby. Her mam accumulates presents for the child, so many the house is packed with flash, tatty crap, all impossible to take home. Of course Noelle is impatient with this, it satisfies no one, only feeds the momentary impulses of her mother. This need for instant gratification is indicative of her mam’s addictions: she’s quick to take offense, says what she thinks, has a knee jerk reaction to life’s problems. Drinks.
The drinking is a part of life. It is everywhere, a family thing, a cultural thing. It seems OK until it is not. Being drunk at family gatherings is encouraged. In a side-street bar with your kids waiting after school, not so much. Kids start early. Noelle, playing with her mates, drinks until she is blind and passes out. Regularly. Then she runs away, ends up in New Zealand, and takes her addictions with her.
The book is subtitled ‘becoming my mother’s daughter’ but Noelle was never going to turn into her mother. New Zealand embraces her – another nation that enjoys a party drunk – and she’s drinking voraciously, but she has ambition, (and alternatives perhaps), that her mother didn’t have access to. When she parties it feels like a middle finger up to her mam – look you! I can drink until I puke but I can handle it, I’m working, my career taking off! I’m grand, she says, until she isn’t. So she goes sober, peeling away from her mother. Sounds straight-forward, but what a hard thing. This girl is made of steel.
The story flows with the lovely rolling texture of voice that we hear on the radio. ‘Go ’way out of that, the two of ye are gone out of ye’re knowledge. Sure that’s five stars isn’t it?’ It’s a signature lilt, enchanting.
And that word, ‘grand’, that means so many things. I’m grand, they say, in a hundred different ways.
Noelle’s mother gets sick and she dies with her family close, a much loved and cantankerous alcoholic with a big heart until the end.
‘The last time I rang her from New Zealand,’ says Noelle, ‘she was adamant: ‘I’ll be grand, girl, I’ve great faith altogether.’