It’s a wonderful thing to wake up, make a cup of tea and devote your morning to an engrossing book without a thought to the dishes in the sink or other household chores. I had such an opportunity over the July 4th weekend, and devoured Nuala O’Connor’s brilliant novel Miss Emily.
Nuala O‘Connor is one of Ireland’s greatest writers of short stories and flash fiction, but she’s also an excellent poet and novelist. Raised bi-lingual, O’Connor — who publishes under her Irish name, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, in Ireland — has a great ear for the playfulness of language, for double meanings, and the layers that get lost in translation. She brings that same perceptiveness to her understanding of her characters and the nuances of their dilemmas, which is especially useful when telling tales of people crossing borders or boundaries from the known to the unknown.
In Miss Emily, we meet Ada Concannon, a young Irish girl newly emigrated to Amherst, Mass., who comes to work as maid and cook in the home of the Dickinson family, and their poet daughter Emily, then in her late thirties. Both women are breaking new ground and negotiating boundaries; Ada must deal with a new country, fit herself to her employer’s whims, and find a place for herself in the Amherst Irish community; while Emily has taken a decision to remain in her peaceful home in order to devote her energy to her poetry, despite her family’s expectations that she should take a more active part in community life.
Both characters are wonderful feats of empathy and imagination on O’Connor’s part. She researched Dickinson’s life and home thoroughly, and largely seems to have bent her story around what’s known and documented. Setting aside some of the lurid theories about Dickinson’s supposed mental and physical health, she shows Dickinson as a woman wholly dedicated to her art, but within a family and society in which a female writer was so rare as to be scandalous. Her eccentricities are reinterpreted as the sacrifices an artist must make to ensure time and mental energy for their craft.
“And why do I write? I ask myself daily, for the answer differs at every dawn, at every midnight. I write I feel to grasp at truth. The truth is so often cloaked in misleading speech. Sometimes I let words fall carelessly from my lips when I am with people, but alone I make them settle carefully onto paper.”
Ada Concannon is an imaginary cousin to one of the Dickinson’s later maids, and O’Connor builds on what is known about that family to create a very plausible backstory for Ada, an eldest daughter from the village of Tigoora, Co. Dublin (modern-day Palmerstown) who emigrates to America in search of both work and a less regimented society, she being a little too free-spirited for her own good. America fires her sense of adventure, and although she swaps domestic service in one country for domestic service in another, Ada enjoys the newness of it all.
Emily and Ada are kindred spirits in some ways. Although Ada has no literary interests, she relishes life in a similar spirit, noting the peculiarities of people and the nuances of their relationships in a similar way to Emily. While Emily watches the life of Amherst from the cupola atop her house, trusting her imagination to supply the parts she can’t see, Ada plunges good-naturedly into the life of the town.
Rather than spoil anything by discussing the plot, suffice to say that this is not your grandmother’s genteel historical novel. In its own way, there’s as much intrigue and excitement in Miss Emily as one finds in any thriller. O’Connor’s facility with both language and the nuances of character rewards the reader with two feisty, vivid heroines with very different experiences and social positions, yet who form a friendship across class lines.
An excellent novel from Nuala O’Connor, and one that should make her name in America.
What to read next?
Review of Nuala O’Connor/Ní Chonchúir’s debut novel, You…