Today I am delighted to be hosting the second stop on the virtual tour for Miss Emily, the latest riveting and beautifully written novel by Nuala O'Connor (who also writes as Nuala Ní Chonchúir).
Published this month by Penguin USA, Penguin Canada and UK Sandstone Press, it is a story of the friendship between the nineteenth-century American poet Emily Dickinson and a fictional Irish maid. It begins as the Dickinson family of Amherst, Massachusetts bemoan the loss of their previous maid, which has meant that Emily and her sister Vinnie have had to take on the household chores, occasioning burnt potatoes at the table and the loss of Emily's jealously guarded writing time. Meanwhile the feisty seventeen-year-old Ada Concannon, having been demoted as a maid in an Irish baronet's house for turning up at work bedraggled after swimming in the Liffey, decides there's more to life than this and sets sail to join her aunt and uncle and their family in Amherst, soon to fill the gap at the Homestead, the Dickinson household, and thus become the poet's saviour. Told in the voices of the two women, in alternating chapters throughout the book, the novel charts the growing friendship between the down-to-earth but sharp-minded Ada and the reclusive older Emily, sparked in the beginning through their shared love of baking, and culminating in a drama in which Ada's reputation is violated, and Emily must stand up for her against her beloved family.
As always with a book by Nuala, the mesmeric prose draws you straight into the psyches and emotions of the characters with a vivid and sensuous conjuring of atmosphere and scene. As always, there is both a lushness and a toughness, polarised here in the different linguistic registers of the two women, which are acutely handled.
Here's Emily looking around in the garden:
...everything is floral and abundant, while the apple maggots and cabbageworm do their best to undo it all. I sit under a pine, listening to the sounds of the earth, the turn of the beetle and the bone-song of the crickets;and here's Ada cheerfully taking her to task:
'Now, Miss Emily,' Ada says, 'are you going to sit there like a clump of muck, or are you going to do something useful?'The descriptions of baking are mouthwatering, there are acute insights into poet Emily's psychology and creative process, Ada's eventual trial is searing, and the drama that finally overtakes the two women is nail-biting.
It's a novel about female friendship across the generations and classes, about two women fighting the different class restrictions of their gender (Emily can write while Ada must toil; Ada can go to the circus while Emily can do nothing so unseemly), forging in the process an unlikely friendship. It's quite simply a wonderful and immersive read.
You don't at all need to know Emily Dickinson's poetry or anything of her life to fully enjoy this novel. Satisfyingly for those who do, though, Nuala has clearly researched her in depth, and the novel dispels a few myths. In an interesting article on the Huffington Post, Who is Emily Dickinson? Nuala talks about those myths and the real Emily, shown in this novel to be more characterful and active than she is often portrayed.
For anyone in Dublin tomorrow night, the book will be launched at the Gutter bookshop, Cow's Lane, Tel. (00353) 1 6799206, firstname.lastname@example.org .
Read the previous tour stop, at Shauna Gilligan's blog, where Nuala is interviewed about the book, here. You can follow the rest of the tour, and discover lots more details about the book and Nuala's work from her blog, Women Rule Writer.
Nuala O'Connor was born in Dublin, Ireland, she lives in East Galway. Already well-known under the name Nuala Ní Chonchúir, she has published four short story collections, the most recent Mother America appeared from New Island in 2012. Her third poetry collection The Juno Charm was published by Salmon Poetry in 2011 and Nuala’s critically acclaimed second novel The Closet of Savage Mementos appeared April 2014, also from New Island; it was shortlisted for the Kerry Irish Novel of the Year Award 2015. In summer 2015, Penguin USA, Penguin Canada and Sandstone (UK) publish Nuala’s third novel, Miss Emily, about the poet Emily Dickinson and her Irish maid. www.nualanoconnor.com