IRISH-CANADIAN author Anakana Schofield's debut novel, Malarky, is anything but. It is, rather, an alternately beautiful, brilliant, profound, poignant and comedic work of literary fiction that seamlessly brings together many disparate themes and ideas.
It also happens to be very strange.
This strangeness -- in plot, structure, language and characterization -- mostly adds to the novel's appeal, although it does begin to feel tiresome about two thirds of the way through. This irritation, however, disappears as quickly as it arrives, consumed in the end by the author's splendid prose.
Schofield is a writer of fiction, drama, essays and literary criticism. She currently lives in Vancouver but spent many years working in London and Dublin.
Her affinity for the latter is apparent in her choice of setting for this novel, as most of its action, or lack of action, takes place in a rural village not far from the Irish capital. There, the narrative -- which occasionally calls to mind Margaret Laurence's The Stone Angel -- revolves around the emotional and physical meanderings of an eccentric, unhappy, contemplative middle-aged farm wife.
Philomena is struggling to come to terms with a few surprising observations that she has recently made about herself, her son and her husband. While she tries to dismiss these ideas as simple malarky, thoughts about her husband's supposed infidelity and her son Jimmy's confirmed homosexuality keep muddling up her head, making her think, do, say and try things that come across as plain crazy.
Schofield plays on her heroine's anxiety and confusion by dividing the narrative into episodes rather than chapters, and alternating between first and third person voices and past and present tenses. The third-person voice refers to Philomena as "Our Woman," while the first person voice refers to Philomena's philandering husband as "Himself."
In parts of the novel both Himself and Jimmy have died, but Philomena is plagued by grief only for her son.
"All her Jimmy moments feel like they've rolled under a cupboard and she cannot quite reach them, even with the handle of the broom extended," Schofield writes.
"Whenever she can't find a story she cries, and she doesn't like this ... She'd love to roll under a cupboard and just wrap herself around the molecules of the story she cannot quite trace."
Philomena's love for Jimmy, the love of a mother for her son, is the central theme of this novel. But the book has much to ask and much to say about many other topics as well, among them empowerment through sex, loneliness in marriage, the futility of war, the strains of immigration and the margins of mental health.
Schofield's ability to tie all these together in such an original, quirky, tender and eloquent way is to be commended. The fact that her approach is sometimes confounding makes this first novel even more interesting and entertaining to read.
Sharon Chisvin is a Winnipeg writer.
By Anakana Schofield
Biblioasis, 225 pages, $20