Molly McCloskey’s novel, When Light is Like Water, is about an American woman who moves to Ireland and falls in love, and then divorces, as she did, says Sue Leonard
THE endorsements on the back of Molly McCloskey’s new novel are not only eulogistic; they are literary gems. And when Molly’s publicist informs us that the editor had rarely received such universal praise for a book, Molly smiles, and agrees that the feedback has been good.
Is she not excited? Doesn’t she feel that, with such words from the likes of Anne Enright, she can now die happy? She looks at me, and laughs.
“Yeah. They’re nice,” she agrees. Then adds: “I’m very shy.”
Such reticence shouldn’t surprise me. Because her quite wonderful novel, When Light is Like Water, has a restrained containment. Its brilliance comes from the truth it conveys. The glittering language is never showy, and it’s not the plot that makes the book so compulsive. Rather, it’s that sense of recognition. That she knows the universality of passion, guilt, and deceit.
Recently arrived from Washington DC, Molly is feeling the cold. But, settled in front of the fire in the Merrion Hotel, she orders an iced tea. An American, who lived in Ireland for some 25 years, Molly started penning the novel when she was trying to decide whether to go back and live in the US.
“There was this voice in the back of my head, going, ‘Is Ireland really home, or is my home somewhere else? If so, is it too late to go back there, and should I try to go back’? All these questions were live, when the book was being written.
“I started the book in 2011, and finished it a year and a half ago. At the time, I was going back and forth, trying to figure out where to be.
“All my family are back there, including my ageing mother, with whom I’m really close. I kept testing the water and thinking, ‘oh, yes! Oh, no’!”
As young journalist, Molly first arrived in Ireland in 1989, intending to stay for just six weeks.
“I had this plan. I would arrive in Dublin and would go round the perimeter of the county. Then I would go home.
“1989 in Ireland was a very interesting time. If I’d waited a couple of years, I would have missed the end of an era, because, within a few years, everything changed radically; and not just on a superficial level; on a deeper one, as well.”
Ending up in Sligo, Molly fell in love with the country, and with a man whom she married. When the marriage failed, she moved to Dublin, and lived there, writing — there’s a previous novel, a collection of short stories, and a memoir about her brother — reviewing, and teaching writing, with a sojourn in Nairobi, where she worked for the United Nations.
During those years of indecision, Molly retraced her steps from that early trip.
“I hoped that would make my decision clear, but, of course, it didn’t help at all. But it was kind of interesting to go back and see those places and think about what it was I had fallen in love with, and whether I would feel anything.”
Her novel centres on Alice, a young American arriving in Sligo with no plans, who falls in love, both with Ireland and with an Irishman, marries, settles down, then embarks on an affair that ends her marriage, and her stay in Sligo. Later in life, Alice returns, obsessed with the past. To what extent is the novel autobiographical?
“Some of it follows the rough outline of my life, but a lot is fictional. I wanted to make it feel like a memoir, so the voice is in the first person.
“Yet it is, I think, the voice of non-fiction, which I also wanted. When you are basing a work on your own life, some true things come to you, then they take on a life of their own. It might be a kernel of something, or a titbit that someone else told you.”
Her descriptions of the characters are masterly. And she captures that frenetic sense of adultery.
‘I had always imagined adultery would feel shadowy and whispered, a world in black-and-white, all cobblestone and dripping eaves, but what it felt like was being always on the run, everything breathless and fractured, and a bit ridiculous.’ “I was interested in marriage,” she says. “It’s a kind of organism that either works or doesn’t work. Like the story I told of the wife who packs her husband’s suitcase when he sees another woman, that, astonishingly, made her marriage work, but might ruin another marriage.
“Another thing that interests me, is, why, if you are unhappy, can people not say ‘can we get a divorce?’ Why do they have to bring the house down? They do things that create situations where there is no other choice but to part.”
The book is also about forgiveness.
“Alice is looking back with a lot more self-awareness, and is trying to integrate it into who she is now. It’s about her forgiving herself, and looking to her marriage to be forgiven — though that is not the point. She’ll have to learn to live with her guilt.”
Molly wrote the book in a south Dublin seaside family house she had borrowed from friends. There’s a strong sense of atmosphere — and of the smell of the sea — but she hadn’t anticipated the house finding its way into the novel.
“With the books and family treasures, it was so resonant with everything that a home is.”
Being self-effacing, does Molly find the publicity for a book — the interviews and festival appearances — trying?
“It’s really interesting to meet people who have read the book,” she says.
“And to hear how they read the book, and the motivations they might attribute to you that you were never conscious of. Which doesn’t mean they were right and you wrong; they had just seen something you didn’t see.
“My mother read a passage about working in the field, and she said, ‘I wondered why that sentence was so long. Then, I realised a distilled, prolonged moment, and you were doing that to embody it,’ and I thought, no, I wasn’t conscious of that. It just seemed the right structure for what I was trying to convey.”
Molly has always worried that she is a slow reader. But, recently, read 10 novels quickly for an article in The Guardian, but hated the experience.
“It was like racing through a meal. I like to read and dawdle and daydream. I like to read books that make me want to stop and reread a sentence and go ‘wow’!”
And that’s exactly how I read When Light is Like Water.
Next up, Molly is planning a novel that she’s been thinking about for eight years.
“That means either I will never do it, or I really need to do it. I think I’ll try to write it over the summer and see how it feels. Maybe it will turn into a long short story, or maybe it will be something more”.
After four years living in Washington DC, does America now feel like home? She nods.
“The morning after the presidential election, I really knew I was home, because of how deeply upset I was. It felt like a death in the family.
“I have dear friends in Ireland, but I never felt that emotional depth of engagement.
“I was always interested, but more in an observing way than a feeling one. So, yes, America feels like home, which is kind of nice. I didn’t expect it!”
When Light is Like Water
Penguin Ireland, €12.74; Kindle, €11.82
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved