A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa – Book Review

Title: A Ghost in the Throat

Author: Doireann Ní Ghríofa

Genre: Non-Fiction, Auto-Fiction, Historical Research, Memoir

Blurb from Goodreads

A true original.

In this stunningly unusual prose debut, Doireann Ní Ghríofa sculpts essay and autofiction to explore inner life and the deep connection felt between two writers centuries apart.

In the 1700s, an Irish noblewoman, on discovering her husband has been murdered, drinks handfuls of his blood and composes an extraordinary poem.

In the present day, a young mother narrowly avoids tragedy.

On encountering the poem, she becomes obsessed with its parallels with her own life, and sets out to track down the rest of the story.

A devastating and timeless tale about one woman freeing her voice by reaching into the past and finding another’s.

My Review

I knew I had to read A Ghost in the Throat when it started popping up on all sorts of bookish lists be they shortlists for awards or those best of 2020 reads that appear in the media. Plus it’s published by my very favourite indie publishers Tramp Press which typically means it’s a book I’ll either love or be incredibly engaged by.

This book is a strange sort of fish. Difficult to classify as it’s part memoir about the life of a modern day mother, and part auto-fiction as it delves into the history of the Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire and the woman behind it. The Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire is an Irish keen (poem) which is a type of oral lament that was given by Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill at the graveside of her husband Art Uí Laoighaire. It would have been handed down in the oral tradition until ultimately it was written down… and most likely written down by a male.

“This is a female text.”

This statement is peppered throughout the book as the author Doireann Ní Ghríofa attempts to give recognition to the life of the enigmatic Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill. Which absolutely is brilliant. There’s nothing I love more than a book that aims to release a long forgotten woman’s experiences from the shackling silence of a patriarchal society.

And while researching, and translating, the Caoineadh from Irish to English, Ní Ghríofa aimed to explore her own life and sense of womanhood. This meant that the book became a strange amalgamation of almost fictionalised history (even though the book is heavily researched) as Ní Ghríofa used her own experiences of life, love, and motherhood to imagine the innermost thoughts and life of Eibhlín Dubh.

Ní Ghríofa certainly is skilful as a writer as she can conjure up startlingly vivid imagery at times. And the book is rather lyrical from a prose point of view…

But!

Overall I found it to be frustratingly reductive or at least very traditional with regards to how it explored womanhood and feminism.

Much of the book was given over to the maternal aspects of being female with incessant talk of birthing and nursing children, the mundanity of everyday household chores etc etc. Yes it’s an accurate description of life for many women but wow is it tedious to read about! I really don’t care to read about endless lists of domestic tasks that need carrying out no matter how realistic they are to the everyday existence of the author. The narrative style that Ní Ghríofa chose to use just had a sense of self-indulgence about it as every experience of female hood seemed to be mired in a sort of shame which to me felt like it belonged in the past rather than present day Ireland.

However, I believe I understand the aims of the author with regards to giving voice to Eibhlín Dubh and how ultimately her research led to a dead end as very little information about Eibhlín’s life after her husband’s death could be found.

Let me try to elaborate:

Within the book Ní Ghríofa says she doesn’t like the U2 song lyric that goes “and you give yourself away” from With Or Without You. Yet that’s all she seemingly did as a woman. For so long it seemed she was only defined by her role as a mother and a nursemaid to her children. And ultimately it was her husband who released her from this need to give herself over by making the decision to stop having children.

And while researching and imagining the life of Eibhlín Dubh, Ní Ghríofa projected her own lived experience (with regards to being a mother) onto the life of Eiblín Dubh. Which one could argue was incredibly reductionist. But also I guess the point she was attempting to make was that’s pretty much the only way history records women, as mothers or wives of men.

Because ultimately all we discover about Eiblín Dubh is that she was a wife and mother. Which sadly made the historical aspect of the book feel somewhat hollow to me. I know, research doesn’t always yield the results we hope for, but after reading so many tedious descriptions of domesticity I just yearned for a little more insight into the other aspects of Eiblín Dubh’s life.

At the end of the book Ní Ghríofa provides us with her translation of the Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire which is indeed interesting as some of her translating choices certainly do colour the Caoineadh in a different light than from how my own Irish would see it, but this wasn’t enough to save the overall reading experience for me.

Sadly this book promised so much but for me the narrative got bogged down with layers and layers of domestic tedium, and reductionist descriptions of womanhood which overall made it rather dull to read. I would have much preferred a book that was purely about researching the life of Eibhlín Dubh as to me that was where Ní Ghríofa’s writing shone brightest.

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