As I wrote in an earlier post, I’m lucky in that I get to look at lots of books in my quest to buy titles for the Library book groups. Some have been terrific, almost all have given us good discussions, and a few have been real dogs. Every once in a while I come across one that everyone in the two groups really digs into and adopts as a new benchmark for both great reading and great discussions. This year, I’ve found two.
The first is Annie Dunne. Annie is in her late fifties, hunchbacked from a childhood bout with polio, and completely dependent on her family for bread and bed. In exchange, she works from before dawn until after dark doing every kind of house and farm work that needs doing.
Annie grew up in privilege and position, the daughter of a senior official of the English government in Dublin; but, following the establishment of the Irish Republic, Annie’s family lost its status. As a hunchback, Annie had no marriage prospects, and became the live-in housekeeper and nurse for her ailing sister. Now she lives on her cousin Sarah’s little farm, selling eggs for the little spending money she is able to eke out. She and Sarah work and sleep side by side, relying on each other for support in their ongoing tasks. They also agree to take in the young daughter and son of Annie’s nephew, so for the second time in her life Annie becomes the surrogate mother of a relative’s children. Between the children and the suspicious attention of an area laborer towards Sarah, Annie’s life is turned upside down.
Although the year is 1959, few aspects of the 20th century have penetrated to Sarah’s hilltop farm—no electricity, no automobile, no telephone. The rhythms of life could be those of any pre-industrial age and place, and Barry describes them in glowing detail without forgetting the toll they take on the human body. Annie’s first-person narration not only recounts those toils, it also lets us in on the hopes and disappointments, resentments and fears she carries as a kind of psychic counterpart to the hunch on her back. She speaks, as do all of the characters, in the cadences of people who love the sounds and structures of language, and everything we see of their physical setting comes through Annie’s observations and conversations. Knowing Barry’s background as a playwright, it is easy to imagine this on stage, but reading it as a novel makes Annie accessible to many more people. I hope they find her as unforgettable as I do.
And the second great reading/discussion book? Check out my October 29 post.
Check the WRL catalog for Annie Dunne