“Serious fiction is a dream which can become a nightmare.” (Brian Moore)

Thank you to everyone who left kind comments last week. Covid is dragging on with me but I do seem to be slowly improving – it’s not been great, despite my being tripled vaxxed (and very careful). I sincerely hope you all stay safe and well. Here is my second contribution to Reading Ireland Month 2022 aka The Begorrathon, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books. Do join in with the event if you can!

My choice this week was inspired by the Brian Moore at 100 readalong which Cathy also hosted throughout last year. I really wanted to join in, but my reading was pitiful. It’s not massively improved now to be honest, but it has improved enough that I was finally able to pick up this lovely hardback edition out of the TBR pile:

The only other Brian Moore I’ve read was The Colour of Blood, which I didn’t massively get on with. I didn’t dislike it, and I could tell it was really well written, but I just didn’t connect with it. All the Brian Moore love during last year’s event persuaded me to give him another try and I’m so glad I did. I Am Mary Dunne (1968) was an expertly written, engaging read and a complex character portrait.

We spend a day with the titular 32-year-old narrator, and it’s a bad day she’s having. A receptionist at her hairdressers asks for her name and she finds it escapes her. This sends her into a spiral of anxiety and reminiscences.

“When people say they remember everything that happened in their lives, they’re deceiving themselves. I mean if I were to try and tell anyone the story of my life so far, wouldn’t it come out as fragmentary and faded as those old snapshot albums, scrapbooks, and bundles of letters everyone keeps in some bottom drawer or other?”

She has been married three times, changing her name each time. With each of her husbands, escape seems to be motivating factor driving the marriage. She marries Jimmy in order to leave Canada and escape her home; she marries Hat to escape Jimmy; and she marries Tee because she wants to escape Hat, although with her third husband she also finds love and sexual satisfaction.

The narrative is fragmented, flicking back and forth between her past and present. We gradually piece together her life but Mary remains somewhat unknowable. Her husbands and her friend Janice – with whom she rows in restaurant – are more fully realised.  It’s a really clever piece of writing by Moore, where as readers we don’t get to know Mary despite the first-person narrative, because she doesn’t know herself.

“ ‘You’re an ingenue type.’ It was my acting epitaph, although I did not know it at the time. And in real life it’s no different. I play an ingenue role, with special shadings demanded by each suitor.”

Mary is attractive and Moore demonstrates how her physicality means people project their fantasies on to her. Because Mary is so obscure to herself, she easily gets lost in other people’s versions of her. She believes her first husband when he calls her insatiable, and she believes her second husband when he says she is a cold virgin. She accepts an older woman with a crush calling her Maria and attempting a Pygmalion scenario, and a full obliteration of her name through her third marriage “I am introduced to everyone as Mrs Terence Lavery”.

But Mary is not wholly sympathetic. She doesn’t always behave well, or kindly. She uses derogatory terms that I’m pretty sure would have been outdated and offensive in 1968. She sheds friends like she sheds identities. She changes people’s names too: Jimmy, Hat, and Tee are her husbands’ abbreviated names; the older Miss MacIver becomes Mackie. A man with a long-standing crush is amazed she doesn’t remember a nickname she gave him.

Mary refers frequently to an evil twin throughout the day, the part of her that behaves badly which she attributes to PMS. She says things she doesn’t mean and shakes uncontrollably. Part of the ambiguity around Mary is that by the end of the novel, I didn’t know if she was having a really bad day compounded by PMS (or PMDD); or whether she was seriously unwell. I did enjoy this bitchy thought that popped into her head about the portraits in her husband’s study:

“When I think of it, the arrogance of a man who could do the trivial work he does under the scrutiny of the likes of Tolstoy and Yeats. Proust gave up a world for his work. Terence wouldn’t even give up a party.”

I Am Mary Dunne sees the narrator having an existential crisis, fearing obliteration without any idea of who is being obliterated.

“I am beginning to die because some future me cannot keep me in mind.”

Yet I didn’t feel particularly hopeful by the end that the assertion in the novel’s title was any further realised than at the start of the story. It wasn’t a depressing tale, but Mary still seemed to have no idea of who she was. It was one of those stories that left me wondering what happened the next day, after the novel finished…

“I am no longer Mary Dunne, or Mary Phelan, or Mary Bell, or even Mary Lavery. I am a changeling who has changed too often and there are moments when I cannot find my way back.”

To end, a song about shifting identities by a master of reinvention:

26 thoughts on ““Serious fiction is a dream which can become a nightmare.” (Brian Moore)

  1. Take it very slowly indeed, as Covid recovery seems to be one step forward, two steps back. An interesting sounding book – was just having a bit of a Twitter discussion about changing your name or not when you marry.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m so sorry to hear covid’s still with you. I hope you’re able to take time to properly recuperate.

    Your last sentence makes me want to read this. I’ve always felt that names are important. The idea of taking a husband’s entire name so that a wife’s identity is subsumed is anathema to me. Interesting to see it raised so long ago and by a male writer.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Susan. My work have been very good about allowing me to work flexibly according to how I’m feeling and I hope I’ll be very much better soon!

      Your comment reminded me of a wedding a friend of mine attended. She was really concerned by a ritual of the couple’s own devising, that suggested they were extinguished as individuals upon being married. I don’t think that was the symbolism that they intended, and of course the most important thing is that it meant something representative to them, but it’s interesting that even now some of the ideas around subsumed identity within marriage persist.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Do take it easy – Covid lingered with me for weeks, it can be tough going. Thanks for taking part in Reading Ireland Month, I liked this one when I read it, but I agree with you that it remains slightly unresolved. Love that cover though.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Cathy, I’m definitely trying to take it easy and not get carried away each time I feel a bit better, which I am wont to do!

      I’m really pleased I got to this eventually, as I kept trying to read it last year and failing! Thank you for hosting such wonderful events 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hope the recovery continues, Madam B – take care of yourself!

    As for Moore, I’ve not read him – I’m for some reason a little wary of his take on women, particularly after reading some responses to his other books. Maybe I’ll get to him one day – certainly you seem to have enjoyed this one! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Kaggsy!

      I thought his portrayal of Mary was reasonable here. I think some readers might take exception to how he portrays PMS, but I went to a women’s health event where a PMDD charity were presenting, and they explained how severe it can be. Also I think it’s meant to be ambiguous as to whether it is a bad day plus PMS, or whether Mary is really becoming very unwell.

      I’ll be interested to know how you find him if you get to him!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Glad to hear that you’re improving, and sending lots of good wishes your way for a quick recovery.

    That does sound an intriguing novel, especially her exploration of identity–in her case it is her marriages that seem to change her but it seems to broadly raise the question of how far one allows one to be subsumed by others’ expectations. Wish it had ended on a more hopeful note though.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Mallika 🙂

      Yes, that’s it exactly. Her husbands do have expectations but also Mary doesn’t seem to notice how much she acquiesces, and wouldn’t necessarily have to lose herself to the degree she does. It is a question for us all within society, as you say.

      It’s not a sad note it ends on, and it could be read as hopeful, but I definitely read it as ambiguous.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. So sorry the aftermath of covid is still lingering. This sounds excellent, I have read three Brian Moore novels and a small collection of stories. He explores his characters so deftly, though I have wondered at his portrayal of women sometimes (particularly in The Doctor’s Wife) but generally I think he is a really good writer.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I didn’t know that Covid caught up with you. Take care of yourself and I wish you a quick recovery.

    I’ve never read Moore but this one sounds interesting with its questions about identity.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Glad to hear you’re on the mend – hope you soon feel back to normal. 🙂 I had intended to read a Brian Moore for Reading Ireland too, though a different one, but what with WW3 kicking off, somehow I seem to have lost my concentration again! I’m getting very tired of this planet and thinking of chartering a spaceship to Mars – would you like to come along? 😉

    Liked by 2 people

  9. I’m really sorry to hear that you’re still suffering with COVID despite being triple-vaxxed. I’m hearing this a lot lately, especially from people who are experiencing it for the first time, so it’s good to hear that your employers are being very supportive.

    As for the book, it sounds excellent. Moore writes these complex, troubled women so well. He must have been a great observer of human nature, always watching and learning about our behaviours!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Jacqui. Yes, I’m definitely not an anomaly, so many more people seem to have it now and it’s definitely taking its toll. Hopefully the vaccinations mean nothing super-serious or long term for most. I hope so.

      It really is an excellent character study, and as you say, so well observed. It’s a small detail, but at one point Mary says the wind is making her legs cold above where her stockings end, and I was so surprised a male author would think about the practicalities of women’s dress in that way!


  10. Pingback: Reading Ireland Month: Week Three Round-up!

  11. Great cover! I don’t think I’ve seen that one before.
    Like you, I had planned to read Brian Moore last year, but didn’t. Then I thought I’d read it for this month, but that hasn’t happened either! I *will* read it – it’s still sitting on my desk. If only writers would just slow down for a bit so some of us could do some catching up!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I’m glad to hear your employers have been so decent about things. it’s too bad when simply being decent is something worth commenting on, but it is what it is, and obviously many have not had that support and so you are fortunate, even while feeling so poorly.

    That book cover makes me giggle. The colour, the different faces, the sorta sly expression. What a great choice if you’re not feeling 100%.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Pingback: It’s Reading Ireland Month 2022!

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