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book review

Though I prefer the majestic rattle of "shennanigans," the Irish-American "malarky" is serviceable. There's no definitive take on the origins of "malarky," but nearly all sources come to the notion of deceit, entertainment and diversion all rolled in one. It surprises me to learn, however, that the most obvious Irish Gaelic word is cited nowhere: "mallacht," or curse. If you're looking for a reliable way to start a fight, you could do worse than to say, "Mallacht ort!" – a curse on you. Said quickly, you have "malarky." But this hardly matters, really. Malarky has a delightfully euphonic life of its own, one that needs no explanation.

For Anakana Schofield, malarky means sex, and the misrule that it brings to Philomena/Kathleen, a middle-aged farmer's wife in Ireland. In her summoning up of Philomena, Schofield follows a long tradition.

There is nothing unique about Irish lore and literature that depicts the woman undone, the disobedient, transgressive woman who refuses to stifle herself to accommodate church, tradition or patriarchy. Ireland's ancient Sheela na Gig stone carvings of a comically exposed vulva signals both respect and fear of unbridled sexuality. The folkloric Old Woman of Beare recalls her many men with lusty, elegiac fondness. Even Yeat's late writing, the Crazy Jane collection, celebrates the woman who lets her body defiantly sing.

In Malarky, Philomena asks of herself: "What have I learned?" Her immediate answer: "To misbehave." This she does, at first with unease but also with single-minded determination, and then with relish. The result, as she says of herself, is a patchwork woman, one whose former life flies apart in a maelstrom of tragedy and discovery.

Malarky comes in short, numbered episodes. It flips between first-person narration and a detached narrator who routinely refers to Philomena as "Our Woman." Tenses change unpredictably, presumably to mimic or to express the fleeting nature of consciousness and a mind jumbled and slipping into madness.

Between those episodes of Philomena's inner voice and the third-person narrator's detached depictions of her days, conversations swoop in. These are often dead-on, with pitch-perfect speech patterns of rural Ireland: "Work away." "Back the road." "Give it here to me I'll put it in the boot." Some of this comically laconic dialogue and inner chatter calls to mind the great works of comic absurdity by Flann O'Brien.

Other details of Irish life come in easily and authentically, from the name of a TV host to shopping in the supermarkets, from the routines of farm life to the sweep of Dublin streets. A subtle, rewarding humour that feels very Irish also suffuses many passages in the novel.

Yet the comic falters and then dissolves as madness and grief take hold of Philomena. She obsessively pursues experiences that she believes will both bring her closer to her son, and free her from the sexual and emotional straightjacket of her marriage and her past.

Malarky begins to shower the reader with torrents of the breathless, unfiltered outpourings of Philomena's inner voice. Often they're repetitive incantations that circle much the way that the whirlpools created by the disintegrating mind hold its owner-victim within its force field.

Fair enough, if you believe that language should get right in there and mimic compulsive mental processes rather than convey them, or "tell it slant." Schofield does recognize that the reader will need pauses here. She provides them in the form of short excerpts from psychotherapy sessions, where the reader can clue in by catching up with a more pedestrian take on Philomena's situation.

In less hectic passages, where Philomena's inner voice is to the fore, she explains why she is doing or feeling a certain way. Depicting the ebb and flow of madness might explain some of this, but it is jarring nevertheless, because explaining is a sign that the storytelling itself is falling short.

Madness remains so very hard to depict and convey, however, and the risks of using language to express the chaos are enormous. Piling on the outpourings of Philomena's inner voice is not the way to go. Doing so is neither bold nor audacious – it's hectoring. The compact between reader and writer, where it is the reader who makes the story and the writer who (merely) provides the clues, is always there to be challenged, but not by bombardment.

Writing with an Irish voice on matters Irish, or a woman's voice on woman's consciousness, confers no exemptions.

John Brady writes crime novels, the (Irish) Minogue series and the (Austrian) Kimmel series. His next novel, Haywire, is a tale of contemporary Dublin.