- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 27, 2008

THE MISREMEMBERED MAN

By Christina McKenna

Toby Press, $24.95, 310 page

REVIEWED BY JOHN GREENYA

Known chiefly as a painter, Christina McKenna proves, in this her first novel, to

be equally adept at word portraits. While she also does abstracts, her traditional paintings of scenes from her native Ireland convey a nostalgia for the Ireland of old that is about as far as one can get from the harsh contemporary Irish urbanscape found, for example, in Dermot Bolger’s “The Journey Home.” That same nostalgia, brushed over a similarly harsh reality, pervades “The Misremembered Man.” However the story is anything but picturesque.

Set in County Derry (where the author grew up) in the summer of 1974, the book gives us James Kevin Barry Michael McCloone, one of two children left on the steps of a Catholic orphanage, in a shopping bag and wrapped in newspaper, in November, 1934. Bad as it was that Jamie, as he is known in adulthood, never saw his sister again, the treatment that he received at the hands of the “good sisters” was far worse. If you saw the horrific 2002 movie “The Magdalene Sisters” you know the abuse Jamie suffered. As the author says in a “Special Note” at the end of the book, “Those institutions ” the so-called ‘industrial schools,’ orphanages and ‘Magdalene’ Laundries — were run by certain religious orders in Ireland for the better part of a century, and were little more than places of slave labor … ”

The epic physical mistreatment and the emotional privation marked and stunted his life as cruelty to young children invariably does, and when we meet him, although he lives on his own on the small farm he inherited from his adoptive aunt and uncle, Jamie is nearing the brink. “Jamie McCloone rose from his bed, hotly dazed and stiff with undiagnosed lumbago. Jamie was not an elegant sight first thing of a morning, most especially after a night of drink and embittered sleeplessness; a night in which he’d tossed and wept and brought the name of Jesus down and cursed his mother, in fact all women in general ” nuns in particular “”

Worried about their friend, his neighbors Rose and Paddy talk Jamie into placing what used to be called a “lonely hearts” ad in the local paper in hopes that he might even find a potential wife. Although not the most attractive of men — Jamie had resorted to a creative comb over some years ago and had noticeably mismatched ears — by the standards of Derry in 1974, he was a good catch. He owned his own farm and two-story farmhouse and had an inheritance of more than 3,000 pounds in a savings account at the post office.

While Jamie is struggling to climb out of his personal morass, not far away a nice unmarried woman with a good job named Lydia wants to find, not a husband, but simply a man with whom to attend a friend’s upcoming wedding. Keeping her intentions from her widowed mother with whom she lives, Lydia also places an ad in the Ulster Mid-County Vindicator, and eventually she and Jamie meet in the tearoom of the Royal Neptune Hotel. Lydia brings her friend Daphne, who then leaves for a leisurely stroll around the grounds, and Jamie has Paddy and Rose, sitting across the room, as his moral support.

Nicely decked out literally from top to bottom ” his first ever toupee’ and brand new shoes to go with his brand new suit, shirt, and tie ” to his own amazement, Jamie gets on quite well with Lydia. But when he has to go to the loo, disaster strikes. He loses his hairpiece in the you-guessed-it, and, too embarrassed to return to the table, he enlists Paddy’s help, but it’s a lost cause. Rose tries to help by going to Lydia and telling her, not the truth but instead that Jamie has “a bathroom problem,” and the meeting ends without the two lonely hearts even seeing one another to say goodbye.

As devastating as we later learn the fiasco to have been for Jamie, Ms. McKenna plays the scene, as she does so many, for laughs, poking affectionate fun at all of her characters. Unfortunately, that creates a problem of consistency, because from the beginning she has interspersed contemporary accounts of Jamie and Lydia’s lives with flashbacks (entitled “What he remembers”) that describe in extremely vivid detail the abuse young Jamie suffered at the hands of the nuns for the first 101/2 years of his life.

The contrast is simply too great, at least for me. I kept wishing the author would curb her impulse to satirize and concentrate on what she does so very well, creating sympathetic credible characters who are struggling to play the poor hand life has dealt them. In the beginning, before she went so heavily for the laughs, McKenna’s writing reminded me of one of my favorite Irish novels, the late Brian Moore’s simply wonderful “The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearn,” about a middle-aged woman who has a problem with what the Irish call “the drink”.

In addition to the heavy-handed humor, Christina McKenna resorts, at the end, to a plot resolution that eventually strains credulity. It may not be deus ex machina, technically speaking, but it has much the same effect. The penultimate scene begins with this: “Jamie strode proudly from the house into the gilding sunlight, smiling broadly as he went. And as the dog went frantic and Paddy stood amazed, Jamie finally knew what happiness was. The best kind of happiness; that which through years of searching struggle, like water in a desert or a diamond in dirt, is finally found and realized.” Cue “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling”.

Speaking of cues, it should be noted that “The Misremembered Man” has been optioned by Hollywood producer Robert Shapiro for a film that will be the directorial debut of the superb actor Jeremy Irons. That’s a very nice compliment, and a testament to Ms. McKenna’s ability to create real human drama. It should be very interesting to see what Mr. Irons does with this somewhat uneven yet ultimately fascinating novel. And I’ll be waiting not just for the movie, but for Christina McKenna’s next novel.

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

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