First off, my book group has been having an argument over how to pronounce the title—is it the short ‘a’ or the jaw-drop ‘a’ that sounds like ‘Mommy’? I vote for the second, mostly because the children also call the title character ‘Ma’, and that would carry over, I think, to ‘Mommy’. If anyone knows for sure, pass it on!
Regardless, the mammy, as Agnes Browne is known, is a singular character. The urban counterpart to Annie Dunne, a lighter version of Angela McCourt, Agnes perseveres when her husband, Redser, dies and leaves her with seven children under the age of fourteen. With support from her best friend Marion and the Vincent de Paul, Agnes gets her husband buried and embarks on the post-marital stage of her life. It isn’t an easy life—Agnes runs a vegetable stand in the Dublin market, hunts for bargains in the Saturday markets (“a few stitches and it was as good as secondhand”), and tries to keep her brood under control. But O’Carroll focuses on moments of humor, even hilarity, in Agnes’ life. Whether talking to her oldest boy about puberty or investigating the carpet in a new pizza restaurant, Agnes sails right in where lesser mortals would hesitate, even when a little hesitation might do her some good.
Although O’Carroll paints brief portraits of most of the children, he lavishes most of his attention on Agnes and her friend Marion. The daily interaction between the two (Marion runs the fruit stand opposite Agnes’s) leads to jollity, confessions, and mutual support in times of need. The abiding love these women feel for each other is in many ways the heart of the book.
My book group also had some discussion about whether this is a novel or a collection of short stories. Each chapter is self-contained, so the book doesn’t really have the overarching theme or dynamic characters that I associate with the novel form, but we do see Agnes changing in small ways as she starts testing her new independence. Over the course of a trilogy— The Mammy, followed by The Chisellers and The Granny—O’Carroll has the opportunity to follow Agnes’s changes. I’m getting ready to read them and truly hope he succeeds.
(A couple of notes: O’Carroll wrote a prequel, The Young Wan, but it wasn’t as well-received as his depiction of Agnes’s life as an adult. And The Mammy was also made into a film directed by and starring Anjelica Huston. If the book’s light-heartedness translates onto the screen, it ought to be a funny and feel-good movie. I’m getting that as well.)