AT FIRST glance, Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor - aka Nuala Ni Chonchúir - is a relatively simple tale of a growing relationship, not to say friendship, between two women, one the daughter of a working class Irish family who decides America offers her a better future than the humdrum poverty stricken life in late 19th century Dublin, and the other a somewhat withdrawn daughter of a middle class New England family, in whose house the Irishwoman finds a job as a housekeeper.
Through alternating chapters - a neat and clever narrative technique - Miss Emily and Miss Ada tell us their individual stories; the initial impact each had on the other’s life; and how this relationship develops as Miss Ada becomes more and more an integral part of the American household. Recipes are swopped, joys and sorrows are shared. Miss Emily delights in the natural turns of phrase used by Miss Ada in her day to day speech. Miss Ada, while marvelling at the wonderful poems Miss Emily writes, struggles to understand the latter’s apparent withdrawal from general society. You can almost feel yourself settling into the chair beside the fire for a cosy warm read about late 19th century rural America full of “wise saws” and comfortable happenings.
This scenario is enhanced by the appearance of the 'good guy', Daniel Byrne, and the 'bad guy', Patrick Crohan. Add a few more stock figures and we have got ourselves the classic scenario of the bad guy preying on the innocent maiden, only the good guy rescues her and they ride off into the sunset.
However, as this classic plot evolves, the reader becomes conscious of a much deeper and fascinating vein running through the book. The emergence of this underlying narrative is so subtly crafted that the reader is hardly aware of its presence and is what makes Miss Emily one of the more intriguing novels to have come from an Irish pen over the last number of years. Indeed, as this dark narrative impresses itself more and more on the page, the book picks up speed and without realising it, the reader is turning the pages quicker and quicker and with an increased eagerness, not really wanting the book to end but most anxious to read the denouement at the same time.
Purportedly a tribute to Emily Dickinson, obviously one of the author’s personal literary heroes, the novel's emphasis shifts from her to the Irish emigrant Ada Concannon who embodies the sufferings, loneliness, and vulnerability of the many thousands of young Irish females who travelled alone to America with high hopes of the great life, but who found themselves to be isolated and vulnerable in an anti-Catholic and anti-Irish environment. What made their situation even more tragic was the immediate physical and mental threat they faced was from the Irish male emigrant, a threat that rendered them even more defenceless.
As noted at the beginning of this article, the Miss Emily/Miss Ada technique is most effective and superbly worked, and the narrative is greatly enhanced by O’Connor’s lyrical and deft prose. All this makes Miss Emily an engrossing and refreshing read. If the book has a flaw it is that some of the male characters are not as convincingly drawn as the females, but the power and strength of the book more than make up for this, and as the first under the English version of the author’s name, it is to be hoped that it is the first such book of many.