Books editor Catherine Woulfe reviews Grand, a story of mothers and daughters and shame.
Critiquing memoir always feels slightly messed-up. Such arrogance. This life of yours, have you done it right? Managed to live enough story? Fed it back to us in good juicy gobs?
In the case of Grand, there’s particular discomfort because the main character is Noelle’s mother, her Mammy, who died just a year ago, and the temptation – the invitation, almost – is to judge her mother as well as her book. I don’t want to write about Noelle’s mother. Can you imagine some stranger writing about yours?
So in lieu of my clumsy paraphrasing, here’s Noelle, with all her love:
Mammy was a werewolf, it only took one sip of drink to change her.
Her arms are folded around my baby, a perfect circle.
I remember the shock of enjoyment the first time I dug my fingers through her hair, grabbed a thick handful close to her scalp and pulled until she screamed high like a wounded rabbit. She grabbed mine in retaliation, and we stood braced against each other for a couple of agonising seconds, locked together, mirror images of each other.
This is the time of day when I almost like her. Smoking in her jumpers and tracksuit pants – ”my work clothes” she calls them, cheap thin clothes in soft muddy colours. Watching her washing through the kitchen window, still deep down in herself, letting the new day gather its momentum.
Picture the daughter, deep down in herself all these years later, laptop at her kitchen table in Featherston, writing, writing in the sweet morning light.
I think Noelle wrote Grand at speed, partly because you just have to when you’re writing around little kids (Noelle has a daughter, Eve, with her husband John) but also because it reads like she wrote because she was compelled to. As if her recovery from alcoholism, the birth of her daughter, and the death of her mother generated a great howling momentum.
The force she exerted, to get to this point.
Picture again the daughter, an alcoholic just like her mammy, scrabbling away at the crust of shame and self-deception that comes with addiction. Tooth and claw versus all those twisty thoughts, day after day of just not drinking, to recover, to reach this place where she can finally sit still and clean in the morning and start to untangle the past. In public. The bloodymindedness of this woman. And her writing! I am in awe.
Noelle grew up in Cork, Ireland. My lasting impression of this section of the book – of Noelle’s childhood, and her visits later – is of dingy pubs and hot fat and meat: Sunday roasts, chops in a pan, hamburgers, parents whose love language is ham sandwiches. A rushing river.
Her anecdotes are gothic, peculiar; they sound like bad dreams. There’s the time her mother brings home a huge mangy rabbit from the pub and it gets loose in the garden and slams itself into a hole in the wall, screaming. The time her mother takes Noelle, aged about six, to buy pretty white shoes for communion, then to a pub where she reveals the secret history of their family, her two eldest, secret children. Jonathan “the product of rape, Mammy says” died 11 hours after he was born. Tara was adopted out. On her worst nights Mammy screams for her lost children.
Your heart breaks for her, and for the women of this family, and just for women – it transpires that both of Noelle’s grandmothers, overcome by shame or depression, walked into freezing rivers. One walked out again, worried about what the neighbours would think.
Will Noelle walk into the river? We know she won’t, yet as in other recent, exceptional memoirs (I kept thinking of Tara Westover’s Educated and Charlotte Grimshaw’s The Mirror Book) there is a wicked anxiety here. We lurch about, clobbered by story after story, always with the sense that something worse is coming, that dark, lapping river is rising. Noelle is one of those kids who gets through by clocking signs, smells, knowing what to hide, when to avoid her mammy, when to show her teeth. For a good while in this book she reveals hardly anything about herself as an individual, rather describing her environment. One of our first glimpses at the girl herself comes on page 35, when she writes that she told her mother to fuck off when told to bring a cardigan.
You care desperately about this child, and later about the teenager taking her first baby steps into drinking, into the “lake of shame”. You care desperately about the woman finally hitting rock bottom in Auckland, aged 30.
It’s her mammy who saves her. Noelle is hesitating, furiously smoking in the dark outside an AA meeting, when a memory hits her. The time her mammy got out of a taxi, drunk, and fell over a wall in the front garden. “Skull fracture, a small one.” Other memories come in a rush: she remembers ripping an 0800 number out of the phonebook and writing to her mother in neat careful letters, “Please go and get some help, please.” She remembers pouring salt into her mother’s cans of Carling. “I’d laugh and laugh as she leant over the kitchen sink retching. ‘You bad-minded bitch, what did you do to me?’”
Noelle picks up her shame and the shame of the women before her and she walks into the meeting – walks, deliberately literally, into the light – and we can breathe again.
Noelle is obsessed with Bram Stoker’s Dracula. She reads it in high school and takes to leaving her bedroom window open for the count. She is forever noticing teeth and fingernails. She re-reads the book when she’s first in recovery, thinking of the oddballs in AA when she observes “it is only by helping and receiving help in return from one another that they are able to defeat the monster”.
I went back and re-read Dracula, too, and was struck by the aptness of the broader analogy. The thirst, the corrupting drink, the confusion of selves, the wild wounding nights and languishing, written-off days. Red lips, pale skin, Lucy’s poor mother, and then poor Lucy… the dark, lapping river. “Sublime misery,” wrote Stoker. “As I must do something or go mad, I write this diary.” The crash and glitter of the count bursting through a window. The intolerable clinking of the water glasses.
Noelle’s much too cool to make any of this explicit.
But picture her again, an adult, hungover to fuck, pale and stinking of vodka, staring at herself balefully in someone else’s bathroom mirror. A monster has crept up on her yet she cannot discern him. Only her own hateful face.
Everything seems to smell bad in Ireland. Maybe it’s our narrator’s wolfish nose. Stale pints, piss, Impulse, rotten meat. A town by the sea carries “the faint damp smell of seaweed and some kind of chemical fertiliser”. A fur coat her mammy takes a fancy to “smells like mould and wet animal”. Later, “the hospital smell is something fleshy covered up with disinfectant. Boiled food and the iron tang of blood beneath it.” The writing.
I think the first good smell happens the moment Noelle realises, utterly out of the blue, that she has a facility for public speaking. She’s in high school, giving a required speech for the Cork City Speakers Club – a sea of old men – and something takes her over, she ditches her notes, forms new ideas on the fly, speaks in paragraphs, “weave[s] threads together furiously”. The room, that day, smells of coffee, “bitter and warm and energising”.
There comes a whooshing section where Noelle is at uni in Ireland. On the back of an essay about Stoker she is offered a postdoctoral spot, but she’s already a mess. She’s working in hospo, and the restaurant owner, a New Zealander, urges her to head to Godzone.
O, Auckland in the early 2000s: the Ponsonby strip, Galatos, the gossip pages, Fashion Week, the tans and the money of the America’s Cup. The sun sparkles on the harbour, on Noelle. She has a ball writing a glorious section on Prego, where she worked for a while. “One day a woman comes in, leading another whose face is swathed in bandages. They sit in the corner sipping the soup of the day – the woman’s bandages have a little hole for her mouth, like a mummy. When they come back a few weeks later, the skin on her face is stretched tight like a caul on a baby.” She is frequently, squirmingly, funny.
But these are the crash and glitter years. Noelle is drinking hard, saying yes to everything, dinners and PR things and day drinking with her colleagues at bFM, where her volunteering quickly turns into a job. She is smashing her teeth and sleeping with people she shouldn’t and stashing secret bottles of wine.
Now she’s at RNZ. And crash: a panic attack on air. Missing her rent. She gets lost in her apartment building and coma’s out in a corridor beside a bottle of blue Powerade and a Watties frozen lasagne. The pictures make the papers.
Noelle will have told this story a thousand times in therapy and in the rooms, yet there is a pace and a level of detail here that rubs it raw all over again. Direct quotes abound and they sound like real speech. Maybe as the journalist spiralled she detached by taking notes.
We need to talk about the plagiarism. In 2008 Noelle was busted reading essays from British newspapers on her RNZ show, without attribution. I remember being shocked, and thinking There’s something weird going on here. I hope she’s OK. Noelle didn’t explain at the time, and spends barely a page on the episode in her book, because what’s more important than the word-theft itself is that at the time she was wretched, banging out her bulletins in the last possible five minutes, shaking so badly she had to jam her elbow against her computer to eat a pottle of yoghurt. Rock bottom. She wonders how none of her colleagues noticed what a mess she was; well, they would have, but you can make up for a lot with a lilt and a laugh and a wardrobe of Miss Crabb. Also: addicts lie.
Noelle goes back to Ireland for a bit, comes back to New Zealand, meets her husband, has her darling daughter. Someone give her a parenting column immediately. Her writing on birth, and Eve, and the grimness of dogshit on pram wheels is sublime. The dogshit is in Ireland, of course. The family buy a house in Featherston and it is all golden light and oak trees and a little girl saying chook-chook-chook.
But back home in smelly old Cork Mammy is dying. Noelle flies to her but has to leave again before her mother dies. Covid is about to slam the borders shut. Her writing about their last embrace is the most moving thing I’ve read in years, a sunbeam falling across the page. It is the kind of writing that only comes from extremis, the kind that happens when all you can do is write.
Now picture the daughter, sitting alone in the dark with a cup of tea and a laptop, watching her mother’s funeral via Zoom. It is two o’clock in the morning in Featherston; in Cork the sun is out and pouring holy light through the stained glass windows. And the air in Noelle’s home smells sweet, it smells of expensive candles and the jasmine Noelle picked that day. It smells like salvation.
Grand, by Noelle McCarthy (Penguin, $35) is available next week and can be pre-ordered from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.