IT IS 1975. Second wave feminism is in full flow, and a young woman, with dreams of becoming an artist, puts a failed relationship behind her and travels to Italy.
Jo Nowd finds herself in Siena, in Tuscany, a city famous for its mediaeval architecture and renaissance paintings. It is surely a place where she will find inspiration and the path to a new life, but if she is to achieve anything Jo must confront herself, her past, and life’s paradoxes – body versus soul, art versus action, sex versus love.
This is A Wiser Girl, the new novel from Galway based author and poet Moya Roddy, which was published in December by Wordsonthestreet.
A look back, a step forward
For this novel about a woman’s attempt to move forward, Moya found herself looking back, to her own past and past creations for inspiration, particularly to her 1992 debut novel, The Long Way Home.
“Several reviewers of The Long Way Home said they wouldn’t mind meeting Jo Nowd again,” Moya tells me, “so that was the initial inspiration, but I had to find a story I wanted to tell. Slowly I began to piece it together. I was always interested in how life choices are determined very often by where you’re born, or how well off you are, or who you know. Jo mirrors this in A Wiser Girl.”
Such questions and themes are important to Moya and have their roots in her earliest days. “As a child I loved stories,” she says, “but I noticed the kind of person I was, and the family and background I had, were not in these books. That made me want to write. Working-class people are often portrayed as one big homogenous lump and I wanted to challenge that.
'When I discovered feminism it was such a relief to realise everything I was experiencing had a root cause'
“Where I came from becoming a writer wasn’t on the cards. It took a long time to get the courage up to write. I wrote The Long Way Home longhand because whenever I went to the – it was an electric typewriter then – I got a headache from the sheer audacity of thinking I could be a writer!”
The impact of feminism
It is no surprise then that the factors which can determine our opportunities - class, gender, wealth, privilege, connections, etc - as well as feminism, are at the core of A Wiser Girl. Setting the novel in the 1970s, also allowed Moya to look at what being a feminist means in terms of both practice and commitment to the movement.
“If I set it any later Jo would be an out and out feminist,” Moya explains. “In A Wiser Girl she kind of mistakenly thinks she is. I wanted to tell a story of a young woman who imagines by sheer force of will she can make things happen and doesn’t fully understand that class, gender, all sorts of things like religious upbringing, play major roles and present obstacles that need overcoming.”
Moya admits she has been “a feminist from an early age”. She says: “I grew up with three brothers and my constant refrain was, ‘When the boys are made do it, I’ll do it!’ When I finally discovered feminism it was such a relief to realise everything I was experiencing had a root cause. Words like sexism explained so much. Everything I do and write is influenced by it, although I think feminism is much misunderstood and misrepresented.”
As well as the political, the book concentrates on the personal, indeed the metaphysical, as Jo finds that the soul and the body need different kinds of sustenance, and that sex and love are not always the same thing.
“Writers are often observers and not doers,” says Jo. “When I was younger I was politically active - I went on demos every week, but the more I wrote, the less active I became. And men and women’s differing attitudes to love and sex interested me. Women often want one, men the other. Growing up I learned to regard the ‘soul’ as separate, ‘higher’, the body as suspect. At heart, A Wiser Girl is about Jo’s struggle to become whole; to bring together these apparently contradictory aspects of herself – something we all need to do, I suppose.”
Siena, the Italian city in the Tuscan hills, it’s historic town centre a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the setting for A Wiser Girl, and a place that Moya has been in love with for a long time.
“I loved Sienese painting before I ever visited Siena,” she says. “They opened my eyes to a certain kind of beauty. Actually seeing them is something I’ll never forget. A few years back I revisited with my daughter and it was wonderful experiencing it again through her eyes.
For Moya, it was the ideal place to explore the themes of A Wiser Girl. “Put a young girl with a broken heart, and a caseful of paints, in a strange country and something’s bound to happen. To create the life she wants, Jo needs to see the world more clearly. Sienese art is considered by art historians as the flowering of a dying tradition, and in order to live more fully, Jo has to ‘die’ to ideas, traditions, and beliefs that no longer serve her.”
'People have been getting in touch to say how much they’re enjoying it'
The novel has already received great acclaim. "This is Normal People for a different generation," said Mary Morrissey, author of Prosperity Drive. The award winning Ballinalsoie writer, Nuala O'Connor has called it, "a funny, fast paced delight" filled with "sparkingling humour".
“It’s had a tremendous response,” says Moya. “People have been getting in touch to say how much they’re enjoying it. I’m delighted and grateful. I so want this novel to get out to a wider readership. It’s about many things but it’s also a good read, a ‘page turner’. Unfortunately, unless shops like Eason’s or Waterstones stock it this won’t happen.”
The New Year is but a week old, and already 2021 looks set to be a big year for Moya, with two new publications on the way. “I will be bringing out a collection of stories centred around working-class experience in June,” she says, “and later in the year my second collection of poetry will be published - so a busy year.”
A Wiser Girl is available at Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop, Dubrays and from the publisher Wordsonthestreet. It is also on Amazon, Book Depository and other online sites.