Review Of The Mammy, by Brendan
Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 3/19/09
The Mammy is the first book in the Agnes Browne Trilogy, which deals with a working class Irish family during the 1960s. The book is slim, finishing with large sized font, just under 175 pages. Agnes Browne is the Mammy the book speaks of—she’s the mother of seven who has found herself recently widowed. Forced to find a way to care for her family, the opening scene involves her going down to the Department of Social Welfare to pick up her check, yet the office has yet to receive her husband’s death certificate (he dies only hours before the book begins). Agnes wastes no time.
Where most writers would find tragedy, O’Carroll finds humor. Filled with silly moments and cursing, one could claim this to be a standard “Irish tale” in the sense that it deals with all the typical elements: a mother forced to work hard to support her family, their lack of financial security, a father now gone, but two things this book has working for it. One is the brevity. The novel is so short and thus moves very quickly. It goes from one plot moment to the next, and rarely is there a scene that does not incorporate humor. That brings me to the second part—the humor works to the story’s advantage, for without it many of the scenes might have fallen to the victim of melodrama. Agnes is full cursing and spunk. As a mother of seven, she admits to never having experienced an “organism” during intercourse. After her husband dies, O’Carroll writes:
“Agnes’s thoughts were: Well, fuck you, Redser Browne, leavin’ me with seven orphans and not an organism to show for it.”
The Mammy is a fun, light, unpretentious read, though not a particularly deep one. The characters are likeable and the tale will keep you wondering what happens in the next book. O’Carroll isn’t a poetic writer and his method of storytelling is rather straightforward. I can see why he broke these short novels into three, rather than trying to compile them all into one. As is, The Mammy doesn’t have any fat. Had this book been longer, for example, the standard means in which he writes could have easily become a slog, since the book lacks any real moments of “highness” the way a book like Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes does. (Just to bring up another Irish writer while I’m on the subject).
Angela’s Ashes, while it does suffer from moments of overwriting, it is also full of wonderful poetic phrasings and exchanges that a book like The Mammy lacks. In other words, McCourt seems to be the better overall talent of the two writers, yet O’Carroll is more concise. As is, The Mammy is a fun, light read, and there aren’t really any criticisms I can offer for what it is: a humorous, warm tale told with a rather standard way of telling it. Yet I can say if you asked me what I would have liked to see, I would have liked to see more moments of depth sprinkled in, more acute observations, and some poetic phrasings here and there as a means for balancing all the humor.
But that’s just what I would have wanted to see. As is, the book succeeds and I think readers will enjoy it. When Agnes’ best friend Marion dies, for example, the scene is not in any way mawkish or heavy-handed. I should also note that the last line in the book is a very good one, and it is an effective way to keep readers wondering as they pursue the next book in the series. After having read The Mammy, I have a good guess as to how the other books in the series will go, for O’Carroll is somewhat predictable in his approach. Putting plot elements aside, I know (or at least I think I know) how O’Carroll will deal future scenes, just by his writing style. Of course I won’t know till I read the rest of the series, so it’s still possible he could surprise me. Hopefully he will.
In the 1990s, there was a boom in all things Irish, and O’Carroll’s books were among them. The next two books include The Chisellers and The Grammy. O’Carroll proves that not all Irish characters need to be wallowing in misery and that humor is something that can be found everywhere. Having said that, I’m onto the next book. I’ll keep you posted.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]
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