Oona, by Alice Lyons, Lilliput Press, 176 pp, €15, ISBN: 978-1843517719
Alice Lyons describes herself as a writer whose work embraces the visual arts, but she goes further than that ‑ in her work she straddles the boundaries between poetry, film and installation, as well as personal and national boundaries. As an artist her identity is fluid, or to use a fashionable term, slippery. This text is presented as a novel, but it is not as other novels. Oona is a poetic novel in its intense scrutiny of its own language – in this case a language that the narrator has been partially deprived of by the death of her mother.
As the blurb tells us, Oona is a novel written without the letter “o”, that is to say, it’s a lipogram, a text written under a particular form of verbal or formal constraint. People have been writing these for thousands of years but the lipogram has recently become more current due to the works of the mainly Paris-based writers banded together in the Oulipo, particularly George Perec. Perhaps their most famous product is Perec’s La Disparition, a novel written with the constraint of not using the letter “e”. But the novel is not just a display of verbal ingenuity. Perec’s mother was taken from Paris to a concentration camp and murdered by the Nazis during WWII. After the war, French bureaucracy would issue an “Acte de Disparition”, a death certificate for someone who had disappeared, who was nowhere ‑ and everywhere ‑ to be found, like the letter “e” in his novel.
Similarly, Oona is a virtuoso verbal performance but also, in its totality, an intensely moving experience. The mother disappears from the young narrator’s life with the same suddenness as Perec’s. She is dying, but is literally spirited away, giving Oona no chance to mourn properly. (Later, Oona is fascinated and inspired by Irish death practices, because, among many other things, Oona is also about Ireland and its diaspora.) Without the letter “o”, of course, there is no mother, and there is no womb. There is a conceit in English that consonants are male, vowels female, and O is obviously the most female vowel of all.
We are familiar with suburban America from the novels of Updike, Yates and Richard Ford, but Alice Lyons manages to make it all new, and the first part of the book is a brilliant evocation of a youth spent in suburban New Jersey, where the mills have become malls, and the state capital becomes Pater Sin, evoking the original sin of the Founding Fathers. Here, the self-made men who have made a killing, including the Irish emigrants, live in the development called Urban Farms, whose streets carry the name of the Native American tribes who once lived there: Pawnee Lane, Blackfoot Avenue, Apache Street. Yet another disappearance.
As a child visiting the auld sod to meet the family left behind, a family member gives her a sod of peat to take back to America, and this becomes a kind of fetish object. It seems inevitable that she will return to Mother Ireland to find the missing “o”. However, once back she has to learn to speak the language, which is not as easy as she thought, as she quickly learns that the true native language in Ireland is not Irish but silence. “The unsaid but highly present speech and silence rules in this place were my new language-learning assignment. But until I became fluenter, I blurted and my speech was lapped up with relish.” And this silence is accompanied and concealed by the constant gab which the narrator finds herself being seduced by. She ends up settling in Leitrim, and paints a hilarious and penetrating portrait of rural Ireland in the boom years of radical transformations, where the man with a field of poor land on the edge of the village become a millionaire overnight – on paper, at least. She dissects the bizarre collusions between a real sense of community and a material greed verging on the psychotic, with a clarity – and sympathy ‑ that perhaps only a semi-detached observer could summon up.
“Emigrating in reverse, I faced the headwind that blew the grannies and grandads westward, leaned in, stuck my head in the maw.” Back in the maw of Mother Ireland, she herself becomes a mother, and with the birth of a daughter, the circle is complete, the O is restored. Oona is a book about speech and silence, Ireland, American and the eye as the “Everything Instrument”. Above all it is a book about itself, as it, in its totality, forms the missing O. It is a tribute to the healthy state of Irish independent publishing that it continues to publish books of this calibre.
Michael O’Loughlin’s new poetry collection, Liberty Hall, will be published by New Island in April 2021.