Tuesday, 07 September 2021 19:36

A Female Text in Flight: Review of A Ghost in the Throat

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A Female Text in Flight: Review of A Ghost in the Throat

‘A Ghost in the Throat’ is a beautiful and poetically penned love-letter from one writer to another. It is an intriguing concoction of history, romance, sorrow, skullduggery and the importance of language all wrapped up in lyrical prose and delivered, like a gift, to the reader.

We are presented with a young mother who is obsessed with a poem she read as a teenager. The story reveals the parallels she perceives between her life and a historical character within the poem. The piece of literature that she becomes obsessed with is the infamous Caoineadh, a long narrative poem which has been deemed by writers including poet Seamus Heaney as the greatest piece of English literature ever written.

The novel has echoes of 'Jane Eyre' as it addresses issues regarding womanhood, female identity and female resilience in the face of seemingly all-powerful patriarchy. Early in the novel the reader is confronted with the protagonist’s view of women through the male writer’s gaze:

Maurice was Eibhin Dubh’s older brother, inheritor of the house they grew up in, and the distributor of the family wealth. As one might expect, the letters between these brothers slant towards the concerns of men: military politics, trade arrangements, finances, and so on, but there are occasional references to the lives of women to be found there, too. I decide that I will return to these texts and commit an act of wilfull erasure, whittling each document and letter until only the lives of women remain. In performing this oblique reading, I’ll devote myself to luring female lives back from male texts. Such as experiment in reversal will reveal, I hope, the concealed lives of women, past, always, but coded in invisible ink.

Our narrator reveals that the female character in the poem:

Wife of Art O’Leary Aunt of Daniel O’Connell. How shifty the academic gaze places her in a minuscule shadow, as though she could only be of interest as a satellite to male lives.

This tells us of the narrator’s rebellious streak as well as needing justice for when she saw a crime being committed. The reader is taken by the hand and led on a journey into the lives of a historical fictionalized playbook. The long narrative poem written over a hundred years ago begins with:

My steadfast love!
When I saw you one day
By the market-house gable
My eye gave a look
My heart shone out
I fled with you far
From friends and home.

The narrator of the book then begins telling us the story of the forgotten woman- herstory needs to be told as a matter of urgency. For the poem is recorded and tells us the stories of the men-how they lived and died but we are not told anything of the women. The writer has clearly decided to redress this injustice and reveal the fictionalized lives of the women in the infamous tale.

The book is well researched and informs the reader of the tradition of those in Ireland to keep hold of the ‘wants’ of their colonial masters. For the Irish people:

They spoke English, wore clothes of English fashion, and conformed to more or less to English customs in everyday life; but they hankered tin their hearts after the lost lands, the tribal rights and privileges, and in moments of excitement used the Irish speech they had first learned.

The writer brings a political dimension into the novel via a linguistic study or culture of the past and present day Ireland. By saying the character has chosen to speak in her master’s tongue the narrator seems to be critiquing this choice. The question of belonging and identity is very much embedded within the language we speak and the writer brings this to the surface issues of cultural identity. The very idea of ‘hankering after lost lands, tribal rights and privileges’ speaks powerfully of British colonial violence and the notion of nostalgically looking back on the past.

The young female narrator life is weaved into the lives of the characters within the poem. The narrator becomes a mere bystander. She has become the very fabric of their lives in order to sustain her own life in the present. She tells the reader:

I don’t know what it’s all for, but I keep going anyway, in the misguided hope that if I can simply exhaust my obsession it might come to bore me, eventually…
Perhaps I’d stumbled upon my true work. Perhaps the years I’d spent sifting the scattered pieces of this jigsaw were not in vain; perhaps they were a preparation. Perhaps I could honour Eibhlin Dubh’s life by building a truer image of her days, gathering every fact we hold to create a kaleidoscope, a spill of distinct moments, fractured but vivid. Once this thought comes to me, my heart grows quick. I could donate my days to finding her, I tell myself, I could do that, and I will.

This ‘obsession’ of our narrator is one journey the reader is also taken upon, and every minute detail becomes a breathtaking insight into the lives of the characters in the poem. The narrator’s life is very run of the mill; we have a young married woman with small children who sees her own life in parallel to the characters of the poem. The characters are embedded within the narrative and often become the real people in her present life. The past bleeds into the present and asks the reader the age-old question: what is the truth and what is fiction? Real events of Irish history become fictionalized by the narrator and blended into the narrative. The young mother interweaves her heartache to that of Art O’ Laughaire’s (murdered male) wife:

People of my heart,
What woman in Ireland
From setting of sun
Could stretch out beside him
And bear him three sucklings
And not run wild
Lost Art O Laoghaire
Who lies here vanquished
Since yesterday morning?

 The sorrow at losing her husband in the 18th century is paralleled to the heartbreak in the 21st Century felt by the narrator. The main voice we hear is that of the young mother who makes multiple hospital visits and leads an apparently ordinary life in the 21st Century. Interestingly, we do not know about the father/husband - his absence from this text is painfully obvious. She envelopes her own tale with the 18th Century poem now known as The Lament for Art O’ Laoghaire into a female text. The reader is introduced to the female of the poem but her story becomes invisible and we are taken on a journey to discover Eibhlin Dhubh’s story. The poem reveals the death of the male and husband to Eibhlin. It is just his story that we are given- Eibhlin becomes a side character. We hear her voice in the poem but it is from the viewpoint of the male gaze:

My steadfast love!
When I saw you one day
By the market-house gable
My eye gave a look
My heart shone out
I fled with you far
From friends and home

Till Art O Laoghaire comes
My grief will not disperse
But cram my heart’s core
Shut firmly in like a trunk locked up
When the key is lost.

Women there weeping
Stay there where you are,
Till Art Mac Conchuir summons drink
With some extra for the poor
--- ere he enter that school
Not for study or for music
But to hear clay and stones.

We are introduced to Eibhlin’s voice through the voice of the male writer but in this debut novel we journey into her life, which merges the political history of Ireland with its treatment of women over generations. The politics of the country becomes the very heart of this story and inevitably the book itself. The author of the novel is a product of Ireland’s turbulent history and this manifests itself in the Caoineadh, as well as The Ghost in the Throat.

At one point in the story the writer weaves we are told of another tale; so in fact this text becomes like a Russian doll, for it is folklore wrapped within a tale within a novel. The narrator tells the reader of an old tale that she heard as a child:

Long ago, deep inside the cliffs at An Rinn, there was a lios. One day, a man clambered down, not knowing what was within. Suddenly, the cliff opened and hundreds of bees flew out. Then a small man emerged and brought him inside the cliff and down a tall stairs. At the bottom was a room where he found many fairies, all singing and dancing. For three years, he was held there, and when at last he left, they gave him a pot of gold. I got this story from my mother. Age 40.

Whenever I return to this tale I feel it surge into a vessel of sound. Rewind it. Listen again, now: hear the heave and hurt of the sea

The narrator tells the reader this tale to not only provide us with an entertaining yarn but to inform us that the present is firmly embedded in the past. She refers to this oral tradition as ‘a female text in flight’.

What this vignette tells the reader is the importance of ‘oral storytelling’ of the past to present day culture. The past is weaved into the present throughout the novel bringing the complex history of Ireland and its people into the forefront. The tradition of Irish oral tales is one which is reminiscent of the great Irish poet, Yeats.

Where My Books Go

by W. B. Yeats

All the words that I gather,
And all the words that I write,
Must spread out their wings untiring,
And never rest in their flight,
Till they come where your sad, sad heart is,
And sing to you in the night,
Beyond where the waters are moving,
Storm darkened or starry bright.

This is a novel which tells us another story; one tale haunting another writer’s words. Within this text ghosts of the past mingle with spirits of the present whilst keeping alive the Irish tradition of storytelling.

Political upheavals such as the ramifications of the Penal Laws brought into Ireland by the English colonizers are weaved strongly into the fabric of the novel. The voice of Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill is heard as a grief-stricken wife of Art Uí Laoghaire. He is killed for defying the colonizers’ laws, and becomes a martyr for the people of Ireland including his wife who believes he was murdered by the state of England.

As the narrative progresses the reader is presented with a deeply personal account of a historical political event, immortalized in rhyme. The voice of a woman who lived in the 18th Century brings alive the voice of a woman who lives in the 21st Century. The idea of women passing down a sense of belonging and more importantly providing a long-forgotten voice is present throughout this book. Ultimately the reader is presented with women being empowered by giving other women a voice. This is very much identical to the Irigrayan concept of ‘cyclically gendered empowerment’.

The ongoing conflict between Britain and Ireland provides the strong political and social background to this novel. In parts this dispute simmers to the surface whereas elsewhere it remains in the background, haunting the worlds of both the women writing decades apart.

Read 2292 times Last modified on Thursday, 09 September 2021 10:51
Razia Parveen

Razia Parveen has a Phd in Postcolonialism, Culture and Identity. She is a supply teacher and an independent researcher in all matters regarding BAME identity, cultures and living in diaspora, and is the author of Recipes and Songs.