A thought provoking memoir that won the Best First Book in the General Nonfiction category of the New Zealand Book Awards 2023, ‘Grand’ is a reference to the good old Irish vernacular, a bit like the way others use the word ‘fine’, when it covers a multitude of sins, lies, omissions – a word that sums up an aspect of societal tendency, used to avoid expressing what is actually occurring.
Grand, tells the story of Noelle McCarthy’s growing up in Hollymount, County Cork and the highs and lows of being around a mother, who had already lost two children before she was born and was herself never comforted by her own mother. Seeking to self-regulate through the effect of alcohol, Grand demonstrates numerous effects of having been raised under those circumstances and how a multi-faceted generational trauma passes down.
McCarthy finishes university and after a chance encounter with a New Zealander in a cafe where she worked, decides to travel to New Zealand and finds herself propelled into a media career after a stint in student radio, then becoming a sought after broadcaster and interviewer.
Though it does wonders for her freelance prospects and professional reputation, the lifestyle also pushes her deeper into addictive tendencies, denial and dysfunctional relationships, until the day arrives when she knows she has to change.
She doesn’t hold back from sharing the increasingly ugly detail of late nights, memory lapses and destructive episodes. She notices her inability to schedule morning appointments, in anticipation of planned hangovers and realises it is not normal.
I do not know, at this point, how the people I work with are able to ignore the general air of chaos that surrounds me.
There is a moment in a conversation with an experienced friend, while contemplating whether or not to attend meetings, she is confronted with a moment of choice.
I ask her: ‘What will happen if I go back to the meetings, but I’m not really an addict or an alcoholic?
She shrugs her narrow shoulders. ‘I don’t know. I guess you go for a while, and then stop because you don’t need to be there? Not that big a deal really.’
A pause. ‘ And what if I am an alcoholic, and I don’t go? What will happen then?’
She moves her spoon to one side, picks up a pair of chopsticks delicately. ‘It will get worse. Addiction is progressive.’
The feeling better part after having given up alcohol takes some time to manifest and is beautifully described in one scene by simple observations through the window of a bus. As the vehicle picks up speed, she is filled with “a fierce, clean joy that comes out of nowhere”. She is nearly 31 years old and her life is beginning anew.
The bushes that line the road are full of passionfruit vines and spiky, colourful bird-of-paradise flowers. I watch the kids in their school uniforms chugging Cokes, women at the bus stop, just normal workers going about their business, and I don’t hate them the way I used to. I am just a person among people, no better and no worse. I am nearly six months sober.
The memoir tracks her path to sobriety and to a coming to terms with who her mother is and was, and to her own ‘becoming a mother’.
It’s interesting that subtitle, because to me she doesn’t “become” her mother’s daughter, if anything that is who and what she is fated to be, without healing or recognition of the generational trauma that lead to her addiction. What she does “become” is’ a mother to her own daughter’, the one role where there is an opportunity to heal from the past and choose to do things differently, to learn how to self regulate her own distorted central nervous system, in order to nurture her daughter in a way that will mitigate what they have all inherited.
It is a compelling read, a deeply honest and vulnerable account of a women in self-imposed exile, trying to live differently, dealing with her own inner demons and having a kind of love/hate relationship with her mother.
The thing that really stood out to me, something that isn’t exactly written, but that is understood, was that Noelle McCarthy was the first child, her mother was able to keep. Though she struggles as a mother, Caroline kept that daughter and loved her fiercely, so this daughter, though she has to deal with the effects of her mother’s alcoholism, she has not inherited the complex-PTSD that babies who were not ‘kept‘ are cruelly gifted with. Ironically, it appears that the mother suffered this neglect, it being suspected that her own mother, most likely suffering from post natal depression, never or rarely held her own daughter.
I want to tell her then, about the study I read about baby monkeys. The ones that don’t get touched and cuddled as much, don’t grow as well, physically or mentally.
Though the relationships are a challenge to navigate, there is a sense of knowing, a sense of belonging to both that family, those siblings and the place she grew up, that leaves the reader appreciating the importance these things contribute to the wholeness of a life.
A compelling memoir and an important contribution to literature that captures the chaos, pain and steps towards healing from alcoholism and addiction.
Noelle McCarthy, Author
Noelle McCarthy is an award-winning writer and radio broadcaster. Her story ‘Buck Rabbit’ won the Short Memoir section of the Fish Publishing International Writing competition in 2020 and this memoir Grand won the Best First Book General Nonfiction Award at the NZ Book Awards 2023.
Since 2017, she and John Daniell have been making critically acclaimed podcasts as Bird of Paradise Productions. She has written columns, reviews, first-person essays and features for a wide range of media in New Zealand including Metro, The NZ Herald and Newsroom. In Ireland, she’s provided commentary for radio and written for The Irish Times, The Independent and The Irish Examiner.
She lives in the New Zealand countryside with her husband and their daughter, and she misses Irish chocolate.