Anakana Schofield, Malarky – Camden New Journal
Reading Anakana Schofield’s anarchic debut novel, Malarky, I was reminded of the underrated mid-century writer, Jane Bowles. Her comedies are full of people whose ideas of propriety are at odds with one another, having flummoxing, cross-purpose conversations. Much of her unsettling humour is born of female paradox: women may be the conservative bearers of culture passing on standards between generations, but they are also “natural outlaws”, disrupting patriarchal rule with their non-sense and malarkey. In the hands of skilled writers, like Bowles and Schofield, the tension between these two positions can lead to a good deal of hilarity, with characters who appear to conform to acceptable norms also pursuing undercover lives of heroic eccentricity and dubious, self-invented meaning.
Malarky’s central character, is just such an unlikely rebel, a band of one whose mundane existence and “foolproof predictability” give her the perfect cover. Known to her family and friends as “Our Woman”, she is an Everywoman of sorts, a farmer’s widow in her sixties who has spent her life looking after her husband and son while trying to keep the peace between them. But her commonplace character is not of the kind that novelists have tended to heroize or universalize, as a person who can stand for us all. Rather, her ordinariness is so obscuring that on the rare occasion someone like Our Woman makes it into fiction, she is relegated to the background – a familiar piece of furniture, there just to help us get our bearings.
Much of Malarky’s subversiveness follows from giving pride of place to such an overlooked figure, and the discovery that her meanings are not as ready-made as we might expect, so we must struggle to make sense of them. Schofield’s writing reflects this difficulty: perspectives shift, sentences fragment, time slips back and forth. But rather than aestheticizing Our Woman’s experience and distancing the reader, there is a companionability in this that is perhaps the novel’s finest achievement. Schofield’s humane intelligence and her attunement to Ireland’s demotic shine through every page of Malarky, bringing Our Woman vividly to life and rendering her apparently demented pursuit intelligible: as she flounders, so do we; her search for meaning becomes our own.
As with many women, it is not until a rather late stage in the game that Our Woman comes to understand that the house she lives in is a fiction, that her husband and son have conducted affairs she is not party to and cannot fathom – the older with a pop-sock wearing floozy, “Red the Twit”, the younger with a succession of dull men. But on making this discovery, rather than abandoning herself to “weeping and wailing”, she decides to try for herself a little of their game. Fittingly enough, for a novel set in rural Ireland, she embarks upon her quest in a spirit of perverse religiosity. With Eveish determination, Our Woman sets out to reunite herself with the men who have excluded her, to become their equal in understanding and experience.
Her first attempt at acquiring their carnal knowledge takes place in a hotel with a rather crumpled travelling salesman (“this fella needed attention the way birds need nests”) – a masculine correlative for her husband’s bit on the side. Then, following the death of her son in Iraq, she picks up a Syrian man whose youth and background, in some incalculable manner, edge her closer to the boy she is grieving for. What she wants from this man is to see how it feels – the pushing and shoving, the interlocked hips, all “the malarky” she “cannot name”, but has seen her son get up to with other lads, down among the farm’s bramble and briar.
They are a mismatched couple, she and the Syrian, but their love-making is erotic precisely because of the awkwardness with which they grope towards one another. Schofield is funny about the translation of desire into mechanical movement – about who wants to put what bit where and why, and the tact required to negotiate these transactions. He, naturally enough, has his own interests to pursue, involving “strange questions” about the nature of the cervix and the difficulties of conception. But like much else in the story, the reason for his inquiries remains comically elusive.
Some reviewers have suggested that such gaps and obliquities weaken the novel, but Schofield is a brave and purposeful writer. She trusts the reader to understand, as Our Woman does, that meaning is often tantalizingly reticent, the most important things are variously conceived of, and we have to fumble our way to common ground. In Malarky’s final, summarizing words: “It’s beautiful when it all make sense, so it is. Occasionally, it makes sense, just for a moment.”
This review first appeared in the Camden New Journal on 07.11.13.