You can dazzle the reader with an intricate narrative, full of clever twists and conundrums. You can set the novel on another planet; you can people it with vampires and time travelers. You can fill it with violence or sex or mathematical theorems. You can dazzle with your arcane knowledge, your vaulting ambition or your extraordinarily inventive voice.
Or you can simply set down, in plain language, the story of someone’s life. Through small, rich, intimate scenes, you can reveal how it was to be part of this family, this neighborhood. How it was to eat meals and have fights, to be loved, to be hurt. To have this marriage, these children, this life. You can, like Chekhov, inform this quiet narrative with compassion.
This is the way Alice McDermott chose to write “Someone,” her seventh novel.
“Someone” opens in an Irish American neighborhood in Brooklyn, between the world wars. Time and place are delivered subtly, through familiar references: the zigzag rickrack trim on a mother’s apron, the game of stickball played in the street, the speakeasy down the alley. This is a neighborhood, and a community, that McDermott knows intimately, and we trust her.
The novel begins with a young woman called Pegeen, arriving home from work, watched by a child. Pegeen will vanish: It’s Marie, sitting on the stoop and waiting for her father, who’s at the center of the story. She is its modest narrator. “At seven, I was a shy child, and comical-looking, with a round flat face and black slits for eyes, thick glasses, black bangs, a straight and serious mouth — a little girl cartoon.” She’s shy, but a close observer. When Pegeen ruefully reveals a torn stocking, Marie reports, “I saw the laddered run, the flesh of Pegeen’s thin and dark-haired calf pressing through between each rung. The nail of the finger Pegeen ran over its length was bitten down to nothing, but the movement of her hand along the tear was gentle and conciliatory. A kind of sympathy for her own flesh.” One of the great strengths of the book lies in this sense of tenderness and intimacy, of empathy for the human condition.
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