Lollipop Laurels

Benjamin Markovits

  • Child of My Heart by Alice McDermott
    Bloomsbury, 242 pp, £14.99, May 2003, ISBN 0 7475 6323 3

Alice McDermott writes about Irish-American blue-collar neighbourhoods in Queens and Brooklyn, and summer getaways on Long Island. Someone in her novels always has a cottage there, acquired by a stroke of good fortune and maintained in spite of the surrounding gentrification. She writes about the generation before hers: the policemen, mailmen, shoe salesmen and streetcar conductors still recovering from the Second World War; and their wives, who make do, limited by the meagreness of their possible ambitions. Familiar worries run through her work: the troubles of drink, marriage, children, family and – involved in all of these – sentiment and sentimentality; the ease with which we deceive ourselves, suffer for the deceptions, and suffer when they are exposed. ‘It’s a terrible thing, Father,’ the widow in McDermott’s last novel, Charming Billy, declares, ‘to come this far in life only to find that nothing you’ve felt has made any difference.’ The local priest and McDermott herself try to convince her otherwise, and partly succeed, if only because sentiment makes its own indisputable claims. Billy’s cousins sit up late discussing his death: ‘Both equally feared growing sentimental. And yet something needed to be said on a night like this.’ It needed to be said in order to reveal the world as it ‘should be seen, through a veil of tears . . . where the passing of time, the cruelty of war, the failure of hope, the death of the young could be discussed and examined’.

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