Anakana Schofield takes a lot of risks with her debut novel, Malarky, telling the story of one woman’s midlife crisis and sexual adventures.
In Malarky, a rural Irish mammy discovers her college-age son is gay (by blundering across several of his assignations with other men — which she then can’t bring herself to stop watching — and then struggles to come to terms with it. (A not uncommon struggle, I have no doubt.) At the same time, a woman comes up to her in town and describes how our protagonist’s husband likes to have sex, in great detail. So, “Our Woman” must come to terms with her son’s homosexuality and at the same time she must decide if her husband is actually being unfaithful with the town madwoman.
She feels that he probably is, and even if he isn’t, the fact that he’s a stereotypical taciturn and self-absorbed small farmer who’s starved her of any excitement in life appears to be justification enough for what comes next: she begins an affair with another man, a Syrian immigrant. Obsessed with both her son and her husband’s supposed sex lives, she dedicates herself to doing what she imagines they do, with the Syrian man’s enthusiastic participation, which seems to be as much for the English lessons and companionship as the sex. Schofield perceptively nails the essence of immigrant experience when she observes: “why should he approach her, only that surrounded by a circle of hostility and suspicion, it’s oxygen he’s after.” The reader feels that our protagonist is after the same oxygen.
Fifty years ago, such a novel would have been banned outright, denounced from the pulpit, and its author made notorious. That instead it’s been greeted with some critical kudos and attention is a huge step forward. The problem for me is that Schofield obscures so much about the woman at the center of the novel, and makes her bizarre sexual quest the sole focus — it’s difficult to relate to or care about such a one-dimensional character.
To start with, she’s referred to as “Our Woman” throughout most of the novel. This seems disrespectful, and to somehow suggest that she is less an individual than a type. If the intent was to make her an everywoman figure, it failed. Next, her age is ambiguous. She is old enough to have a son who drops out of college and joins the army, so logically she could only be in her late 30s if she married early. However, she is drawn as very much the middle-aged pillar of the community through her community involvements and social life. The degree of shock in watching a woman engaging in this extra-marital sexual experimentation seems to depend on how old the reader judges her to be. The woman doesn’t see herself as particularly attractive, but we don’t know how she’s viewed by men (as everything is filtered through her point-of-view). A woman in her late thirties, whose son has just left home, engaging in this sort of mid-life crisis or reinvention of herself seems less shocking than a woman a decade or more older doing the same thing.
Her husband deprives both his wife and the reader of a colorful antagonist by absenting himself from her company as much as possible. Whether he’s simply off doing the farm work or having an affair, as she imagines him to be, is irrelevant. We’re left with her obsessions and questions, and that one-sided perspective gets wearing after a time.
For all the energy and incident in Schofield’s writing, I found the novel a hard one to warm to, and the central character is difficult to root for. Malarky is a challenging novel, and the author makes many brave choices to explore some important and very contemporary issues. Whether it’s a successful one will depend on how each reader interprets the ambiguities.
For a documentary view of the Irish farm-wife, check out Lorna Sixsmith’s excellent Would You Marry An Irish Farmer?…