‘My eyes were open in the dark’ [book review]

A review of A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa

Isn’t this, in the end, what literature is for? This sense of connection, of shared understanding – a feeling that runs deeper than common background or mutual experience and rests, instead, in what it is to be human. This creation of something so infinitely beautiful, a small collection of black words on a white page which, when fed through the medium of human eyes, become a sense of place, time, feeling so strong they can take your breath away. This ability to explore other worlds and other lives, to find in them – perhaps – some better way to understand ourselves. Literature has many purposes, many uses, and it is, as Doireann Ní Ghríofa writes at the beginning of her startling new book, ‘ordinary, too, the ricochet of thought that swoops, now, from my body to yours’ by way of the written word. Literature is something we so often take for granted, and then, suddenly, along comes a book to make you realise just what ‘a tiny miracle’ this form of communication is. Shifting, mesmerising, a text that is utterly, extraordinarily felt, A Ghost in the Throat is one such book.

A Ghost in the Throat Doireann Ni Ghriofa

This was my first encounter with Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s work, and I will be forever grateful to the series of small events that led to my discovering it. That she is a poet is boundlessly clear in this, her prose debut, a book that eludes all classification and hovers instead between fiction, memoir and poetry, a waterfall of thoughts and recollections that combine to make one astonishing whole. In her work, whatever theme she is musing on, Ní Ghríofa focuses always on ‘the ordinary beauty of miniscule things’, and it is this, perhaps, that makes A Ghost in the Throat so captivating. Her awareness of her place in the world and descriptions of everyday domestic life are humble and humbling, transporting both the relative insignificance of any individual life and the multitudes of ordinary miracles contained therein. Ní Ghríofa, I get the sense, is a woman who moves through the world with eyes and heart wide open, who sees beauty where others might find none, who isn’t afraid to let herself feel.

A Ghost in the Throat is a brave book – no matter how much elusiveness the term ‘auto-fiction’, used on the blurb, might encompass. Over the course of the narrative, Ní Ghríofa charts several years of her life as a young mother, allowing us to accompany her through the ordinary exhaustion of caring for young children and the less-than-ordinary trauma of her daughter’s premature birth. She describes several brushes with death, offering unexpected glimpses into her marriage and younger years that are deeply and often painfully personal. And, as she does so, she interweaves her own narrative with strands of another story – the life of Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, whose poem The Keen for Art Ó Laoghaire, written to mourn her murdered husband, becomes the starting point for years of obsessive research on the part of the author.

As she attempts to form herself a picture of this largely unknown eighteenth-century woman and the life she could have lived, Ní Ghríofa goes ‘clattering around in the intimate life of a stranger, without permission’, researching what she can and imagining what she cannot. Though she describes many important episodes of Irish history, the focus of her research is almost entirely on what Eibhlín might have felt and experienced as a woman: sister, daughter, wife, mother. It is an unusual act of love, this writerly obsession, yet one that contains immense compassion. Woman to woman, Ní Ghríofa reaches down the ages, searching to undo ‘another ordinary obliteration of a woman’s life’. She does so without anger at those who might have obliterated it so unthinkingly, without any sense of politicking or haranguing. Her repeated refrain, ‘This is a female text’, is gently insistent, underlined again and again by her intimate portrayals of motherhood, female desire, domestic labour; this is a text written by a woman – or, rather, women, given Eibhlín Dubh’s influence on it – but never exclusively for women.

It is difficult to describe the effect A Ghost in the Throat manages to achieve, or how much I loved it. Throughout the book I felt an acute sense of understanding and being understood, a continual process of recognition and slightly adjusted awareness that made me read my own world through different eyes. Much of this is down to Ní Ghríofa’s language, which is lyrical, rhythmic and keenly chosen, her words underpinned by an abiding sense of grief that occasionally – as when she and her daughter spend days on the intensive-care station for premature babies – rises almost unbearably to the surface, yet still allows for empathy and unfettered hope. In a final act of giving – and this book, I felt, does nothing but give – the volume ends with the author’s translation of Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill’s poem, rendered into language that is moving in its simplicity. Having learned so much about who Eibhlín was (or might have been), she is finally given the chance to live again entirely through her own words. ‘Perhaps the past is always trembling inside the present,’ Ní Ghríofa writes, throwing open wide the door to a sense of centuries-old connection and how all things, big and small, fit together.

A meditation on motherhood and loss, history and language, love, femininity and what it means to be alive, A Ghost in the Throat is a work of intensely poetic beauty, wholly unexpected and utterly ensnaring. If anyone ever doubted the power of literature to make people feel, to offer them solace and connection and an understanding of the world, this is the book with which to make them believe.

A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa is out now from independent Irish publisher Tramp Press. Please support independent publishing by buying the book directly from the press if possible.

4 thoughts on “‘My eyes were open in the dark’ [book review]

  1. I don’t know how you’ve managed to express what I felt about this magnificent book, and which I couldn’t possibly have expressed myself, but I’m so grateful for it. As a man, I can confirm that the Ghost is just as much for us as it is for women, and it convinced me that the only differences between the sexes, other than physical, are cultural manufactures. I loved this book hugely.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much – this means an awful lot. I found it a difficult book to write about (because I loved it so much) so am really glad you think I did it justice. I’m also very grateful for the male perspective – I hope that will help encourage absolutely everyone to read it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I had the same sense of overwhelm when it came to trying to write something about this book, until today I just told everyone, read it!

    There were so many levels of connection, and layers of resonance, between the reader and the author, and between the author and her landscape, her ghost and humanity. What a project and a beautiful creation that resulted from the intimate knowledge of the poem and her pursual of the woman who lived it, and all those it has echoed through down the years to come to us now.

    Liked by 1 person

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