Loss and absence are at the heart of Nuala Ni Chonchuir’s new novel The Closet of Savage Mementos. The novel is a beautiful read but not always a comfortable read. Its tensions lie not only in the themes of grief, post-natal depression and alcohol addiction explored in the novel, but also in the structure of the novel. Ni Chronchuir wastes no time in drawing the reader into the grief that invades the life of the central character Lillis. The loss of her friend Dónal in a motor bike accident is raw and unnerving. Did he commit suicide because she would not commit, or was it a simple accident? It’s a question with no answer and it haunts her.
As a character Lillis is so alive, so real and sensual, so youthful and lost. Her efforts to analyse her relationship with Dónal is constant. As a life-long best friend she questions her love for him. Was it a purely brotherly love, or was he simply a fill-in lover until real passion came along; a friend she took to bed with her when life got too difficult, too overwhelming. And that is the beauty of the portrayal of the character that is Lillis. We get her humanity full on. The only certainty is that she did love Dónal.
Lillis is motherless. Her mother Verity is not dead, but psychologically and emotionally absent because of her alcohol addiction. Lillis is left to make her way through the world without a map to guide her, to help her unravel the mysteries of adolescence, sex and motherhood, a role she immediately abandons herself within hours of giving birth. The novel opens with a beautiful description of the statue of the Blessed virgin in a church on Ardmair street. But one of the most poignant scenes is later in the novel when Lillis, finds another statue of the Blessed Virgin. Worn out and worn down she throws a handful of the votive lamps at the statue.
‘You’re a fake,’ Lillis shouts.
It’s a tragic yet heart-warming, authentic response to this other iconic mother-figure who she feels has also abandoned her.
But Lillis is fatherless as well. We learn early on that her father has already abandoned the sinking ship that is their home for to set up home with another woman. And while we are always faced with her inadequate mother Verity, it seems that Lillis searches more for her father if even unconsciously, within the pages of the novel, eventually falling into the arms of an older father figure lover.
The Closet of Savage Mementos searches for answers to questions that have no answers at the time. Who can predict the future or the consequences of actions?
I found myself taking the novel up and putting it down trying to digest the roller coaster of emotions that it presented, being suddenly jolted from happy to sad within the space of a paragraph. And the emotional turmoil it presents becomes addictive, like the addiction at the centre of the novel.
The Closet of Savage Momentos is a compelling and powerful read.