Nuala O’Connor is the Irish author I discovered in 2014 thanks to the Irish Times Book Club.
You may remember last year, I read and reviewed her novel The Closet of Savage Mementos which she wrote under her Irish name Nuala Ní Chonchúir. That novel was about an Irish girl who left Dublin for a Scottish seaside town after the death of her boyfriend and to escape her mother’s dramas. In Scotland she encountered her own drama and was forced to make a life-changing decision.
Now, writing as Nuala O’Connor for US and UK readers, she pens the story of another Irish woman, the feisty but hard-working Ada, who also leaves Dublin, destined to become housemaid to the Dickinson family. It is a fictional account of the friendship between the Irish maid and the poet Emily Dickinson.
Ada Concannon, the eldest of 7 children, possesses an energetic zest for life that was unappreciated by her previous employer; upon being demoted to scullery maid she decides to seek her fortune elsewhere, taking a passage on the boat to New England where her Aunt Mary, Uncle Michael and a couple of not too friendly cousins reside.
She lands on her feet with the job at the Dickinson household, a family of four with their spinster sisters Vinnie and Emily, neighbours to their gruff brother Austin and his wife Sue, whom Emily appears to (not very convincingly) pine for.
Emily is reluctant to leave the house, preferring words to company and attaches herself to Ada, the kitchen being one of her preferred refuges, thus friendship with the housemaid most important.
Her friendship with the maid flouts convention and is a kind of quiet rebellion within the home that the poet rarely steps out of.
“When I talk too much, everything I think and feel is wrung from me. I have nothing to write about when all is spent. It takes me so long to restore myself. It is as if I must heal a wound after each party where all is chitchat and glances and fun.”
Ada is adept in the kitchen, devoted to the family and the book The Frugal Housewife that Mrs Dickinson has lent her.
“Think of this as your second Bible,” she said.
Ada is charmed by the quiet and unassuming Daniel Byrne, her stay marred only by the creepy presence of the nephew of Daniel’s boss, Patrick Crohan.
Chapters alternate between Miss Emily’s and Ada’s perspective to reveal brief but eventful encounters in the kitchen and rooms of the Dickinson home, between Ada, Miss Emily and those around them.
Although Ada is outgoing and attractive, she still has something of the Irish reserve and tendency to silence when there is trouble. And trouble there will be. Ada and Emily must attempt to navigate the narrow space between their classes to deal with the trouble, without compromising their reputations.
Miss Emily is a lively, charming read, she brings her characters to life, especially the Irish and creates a world we can quickly imagine and inhabit. There is something comfortable and reassuring in her prose and novels that makes you want to abandon all else until the last page is turned. Just as she did with Savage Mementos, so too she achieves with Miss Emily. My only regret is that it all ends too soon, I’m still wondering about Ada and could easily follow after her into a sequel.
“For now I need the solace of words. Words bracket silence. That quiet gives propulsion to the words and all that they say. Words smoulder, they catch fire, they are volcanic eruptions, waiting to explode. I like to start small. With the fewest words I can manage. If the words run away, I trip them up and pull them back – they are elastic. If they do not cooperate, I obliterate them.”