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Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor

Source: Penguin
Paperback, 256 pgs.
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Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor is told from two points of view, including that of poet Emily Dickinson, and the reader is given a glimpse into the secluded life of the poet through her own eyes as well as those of the new maid and Irish immigrant, Ada Concannon.  Concannon has had wanderlust for some time, and her daydreams have pushed her out of favor with the family her siblings and mother work for, pushing her into a new life in America.  Although she will miss her sisters and family very much, she’s eager to see the world beyond her home.

“‘You cultivate possessiveness,’ Vinnie once told me.  ‘You smother Sue, and every other acquaintance, with friendship.'” (pg. 27 ARC)

“Oh, chimerical, perplexing, beautiful words! I love to use the pretty ones like blades and the ugly ones to console.  I use dark ones to illuminate and bright ones to mourn.  And when I feel as if a tomahawk has scalped me, I know it is poetry then and I leave it be.”  (pg. 40 ARC)

The Dickinson’s are well respected in Amherst, though Emily’s recent withdrawal from society has become part of the town’s gossip.  As a maid in the Dickinson household, she is privy to the inner workings of the family but is also expected to maintain its secrets.  O’Connor has created a believable Emily in terms of action and manner, and her portrayal of immigrants, particularly the Irish, rings true.  O’Connor adopts Dickinson’s style of economical word use to tell her story and it works really well.  These foil characters work well together, as a mutual respect blossoms and friendship emerges between these women.

“But how can I explain that each time I get to the threshold, my need for seclusion stops me? The quarantine of my room–its peace and the words I conjure there–call me back from the doorway.  Ada could not truly appreciate that the pull on me of words, and the retreat needed to write them, is stronger than the pull of people.”  (pg. 52-3 ARC)

“From now on I shall be candle-white.  Dove-, bread-, swan-, shroud-, ice-, extraordinary-white.  I shall be blanched, bleached and bloodless to look at; my very whiteness will be my mark.  But inside, of course, I will roar and soar and flash with color.” (pg. 121 ARC)

Readers will be thoroughly taken in by this novel about Dickinson and the Irish immigrant’s life, and O’Connor provides a real motivating factor for Emily’s seclusion from the outside world.  As Ada’s life is threatened, Emily is forced to act and in so doing, she must leave the home in which she finds solace.  Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor is stunning and one that should not be missed.  A definite best book of the year.

About the Author:

Born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1970, Nuala O’Connor is a fiction writer and poet. Writing as Nuala Ní Chonchúir she has published two novels, four collections of short fiction, a chapbook of flash fiction and three full poetry collections – one in an anthology. Nuala’s third novel, Miss Emily will be published in 2015.

Nuala holds a BA in Irish from Trinity College Dublin and a Masters in Translation Studies (Irish/English) from Dublin City University. She has worked as an arts administrator in theatre and in a writers’ centre; as a translator, as a bookseller and also in a university library.

Nuala teaches occasional creative writing courses. For the last four years she has been fiction mentor to third year students on the BA in Writing at NUI Galway. She lives in County Galway with her husband and three children.