A Ghost in the Throat, by Doireann Ní Ghríofa
Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s novel follows the path of a woman, whose voice perhaps emits from a space within Ní Ghríofa’s own life, seeking to rebuild the lost story of another. Her obsession begins by pure chance: she happens to see a sign for Kilcrea, which is also the cemetery in which Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, the protagonist and original composer of Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire, had buried her lover. Ní Ghríofa is a poet, whose first piece of prose nevertheless seems to stray from ‘novel’ territory through its lyrical depiction of the narrator’s turbulent desires as she tries to find contemporary remnants or imprints of the poem’s speaker. Someone had, according to the print on the cover, called the book ‘shimmering’. As a result, my initial reaction was one of doubt. To me, a shimmer would indicate blurriness, lack of definition, pretty reflections instead of clear words: it would be used for a shiny object, a knick-knack that would never be more defined before it is tired of and discarded.
And yet, the pieces and images do shimmer, drawn to the surface over all the possible stories of Eibhlín’s life. As we follow the poet on her journey, more of these images surface, rippling and moving with the poet. Though the narrator of the novel relates her process of translation and discovery, A Ghost in the Throat delves into the creative aspect of translation and research. Her search seems to be one of unearthing information about the Eibhlín, but it is also a creation that emerges from the absences that the poet encounters. At first, it seems that the narrator wants more stories: stories of the young noblewoman’s feelings of loneliness with her elderly first husband, stories of her isolation and exclusion as a young widow, and stories of her after having found her love. The only traces appear through her depiction (which will be spread through the mouths of future singers) of his death. Thus the narrator seeks more fragments.
She greedily desires traces of the lives of Eibhlín’s descendants, for it seems that fragments of Eibhlín’s identity, in the form of her DNA, linger there. Unfortunately, her exploration leads only to dead ends, for the lives of the twice-widowed Eibhlín’s grandsons end with childlessness. Through her trips around Ireland, she hopes that her geographical tracing of the woman’s life would transport her across time. There are moments where her search seems to be excessive, frantic and dangerous to her health.
Do I ever learn the narrator’s name? It seems that the only one I can think about is Eibhlín, almost more than the narrator herself at certain points. I felt saddened upon learning that there was a dead end, a full stop to Eibhlín’s blood legacy, a discontinuation in the cycles of mothering a life-giving that the narrator feels keenly as a mother. Like the present-day seeker of Eibhlín Dubh’s life, I desire that some remnants of the noblewoman’s bones be preserved somewhere, perhaps near the dry, skeletal bits of her grandsons, as if they wait for us. Why? Though I know that the caoineadh’s fragmented birth and rebirth is repeated in the novel, and that the ‘female text’ by Ní Ghríofa is a continuation of that, I feel loss.
Though we are not intimately acquainted with the biography of the narrator, the details give us an understanding of the forces that have created her: her fears, her passions, love, death, life. Motherhood is told through her voice rather than and displaced sentiments of living (living for, that is) that I would normally have expected. The narrator’s routine consists of caring for mewling toddlers, infants (both her own and others’), incomplete tasks and unfinished lists. There seems, by all accounts and all precepts of ‘family’, to be little more than hopelessness in the narrator’s life. Is this not the repetitive, chore-ridden, body-breaking, career-sapping life that we fear?
And yet the writer manages to embody the mother, to display the physical effects of motherhood and transmit the fatigue of the mothering body, without sapping her of her life. The poet gives almost no details of her children’s and husband’s lives, save for the ways in which she cares for them, in the case of the children, or feels their love, in the case of her husband. Doireann Ní Ghríofa focuses on her selfness, as opposed to her selfishness, as the who doing the birthing, the feeding and the nurturing.
I wonder if this is the image of motherhood that should be presented to us, but I am not a mother. The suffering is not elided in the novel, nor is the novel a beatific praise of motherhood, but, again, I am not a mother. I have only ever seen a mother through the eyes of my own self as a daughter, a recipient of the giving as well as the frustration. I also do not intend to be a mother. The student, whose struggles are difficult to pinpoint yet blaringly obvious to my sight, is on the other hand a figure that I may have known very well at certain moments of my past. As a young girl, the narrator had attended pre-medical school, but even her desire to learn was in fact a highly disturbing form of rebellious will that refused to recognise any form of instability or haze of cloudy futures. In the dissecting room, however, all uncertainty and self-doubt began to appear, unravelling the young student’s resolve.
Towards the end of the novel, as the family settles into their latest house, the narrator informs the bees of her husband’s decision to sacrifice the fertility of his organs, and therefore the fertility of the family, in order to prevent further pain to the exhausted narrator, who had recently given birth to their fourth child. The youngest is a girl, and the beginnings of her life are difficult, restricted in isolation to a hospital ward as her mother, though in the same building, cannot hold her and fears for her life. The mother’s pain is constant throughout the novel, if only in the form of never-ending exhaustion. The act of homemaking seems to be impossible as the family moves from one crumbling, mouldy house to another, the mother finding no respite from taking care of her children.
The only form of detachment consists of the search for a genealogy entirely different from the active and tiring one of the narrator: the remnants of the storyless, and yet consistently told and retold, Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill. Her presence is known through all that remains in the caoineadh that keens the loss of her love. The search is a rudimentary one, though it is carried out in the hands of a decidedly unscholarly woman. Nevertheless, this is a female text. The woman's past and future lead to dead ends in terms of the act of chronicling, but this is not a chronicle: this is a female text, one that echoes and participates in the oral retelling of Eibhlín.