In the eighteenth century, on discovering her husband has been murdered, an Irish noblewoman drinks handfuls of his blood and composes an extraordinary lament that reaches across centuries to the young Doireann Ní Ghríofa, whose fascination with it is later rekindled when she narrowly avoids fatal tragedy in her own life and becomes obsessed with learning everything she can about the poem.
The novel itself may revolve around two very real women, the writer Doireann Ní Ghríofa herself (or perhaps a version of her) and her 'steady companion' through life Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, a poet who inspired her in childhood and on countless occasions since, but it’s also an ode to the unwritten women of generations past ... The book even begins and ends with this refrain, and she reminds us of it throughout ... Ní Ghríofa becomes obsessed with this poem and its author. She begins painstakingly translating and researching it - even travelling to the places described in the poem with her young children in tow. She finds the experience of delving into Eibhlín life rattling but invigorating, both transgressive and fulfilling at once. She finds uncanny parallels between Eibhlín’s life and her own, which only further fuels her fixation ... What becomes clear in the course of reading is that Ní Ghríofa has that enviable ability not just to see the world in a very unique way, but also to express her observations about it eloquently ... In both instances, a direct line of communication from one generation to the next. Ní Ghríofa is interested in these echoes, not just in the body, but in the written word ... She describes the female body with great wonder and admiration, acknowledging its incredible potential for pain and pleasure, life and death, finding beauty even in its secretions, be it her life-giving breast milk or the blood that pours from Eibhlín’s husband’s deadly wound ... It’s an extraordinary piece of work.
The prose debut of acclaimed poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa. Billed as a genre-busting blend of 'autofiction, essay, scholarship, sleuthing and literary translation', the book is an extraordinary feat of ventriloquism delivered in a lush, lyrical prose that dazzles readers from the get-go ... This is one wonder of the book, the way in which Ní Ghríofa lets her mind flit freely between the domestic present and the drama of the past in the poem itself. As the symmetry of poetic voices is established, Ní Chonaill and Ní Ghríofa become soulmates ... Suddenly the work is over and the brutal self-assessment is delivered ... The book’s triumph rests on several factors: the translation project is admirable; the authorial voice is empathetic; the treatment of issues that may not reflect well on the author are delivered with honesty; and, above all, the language is sumptuous, almost symphonic, in its intensity. When you can write like this, there is almost nothing a writer cannot get away with ... She is particularly good on the joys and traumas of childbirth, female desire and the ravages life can visit on the female body ... As readers, we should be grateful for her boldness. Without it, we would not have had one of the best books of this dreadful year.
A work of autofiction-cum-essay-cum-memoir exploring her lifelong reading of the earlier woman ... It is, rather, an exploration into how the act of translation moves beyond the page. The work of researching, and of emotionally imagining, Eibhlín’s life becomes entwined with Ní Ghríofa’s own. Eventually she comes to think that perhaps ‘the past is always trembling inside the present, whether or not we sense it’ ... Research and translation are recounted alongside a narrative of the other materials of daily life which are female texts in their own way: the author writes next to ‘a family calendar scrawled with biro and pencil marks, each in the same hand; her breastfeeding body, an experience which joins the women across the centuries, develops ‘a vocabulary of bruises’; The more Doireann searches for Eibhlín, the more she is confronted with gaps. As if she can make amends, she lets herself slip into obsession: ‘whenever there wasn’t space for both of us in my days, I chose her needs over mine’. However, in the end, the book she produces comes as much out of the exploration of those spaces as it does out of the collision of lives. It is a rich and compelling ‘oblique kind of holding’, and a work of deep love.