By Nuala O’Connor
“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.” (p. 40)
Nuala O’Connor’s lyrical language brings poet Emily Dickinson alive in Miss Emily. And although Emily Dickinson’s poetry is held in high regard, her world is surprisingly small. Reclusive and private, 36-year-old Emily is reluctant to even leave her own home.
Emily is close to her family: her mother, father and sister Vinnie, whom she still lives with, and her brother Austin who lives next door. These are her primary contacts. Austin’s wife, Sue, is Emily’s best friend (although Emily’s feelings for Sue run far deeper than friendship). Emily’s entire world is close at hand and she likes it that way. She does not want a husband or children, for she is in love with the words that run through her head at all times of the night and day.
Enter Ada Concannon, an 18-year-old Irish servant. Ada has left Ireland in search of work and adventure. She’s a capable maid and cook, and she opens up Emily’s world. Emily often spends her time in the kitchen baking with Ada and observes with awe as Ada falls in love with an attractive young Irishman, Daniel Byrne.
Told in alternating chapters from the perspective of Emily and Ada, Miss Emily surprised me in its ability to pull me in. The descriptions of 19th century Amherst, Massachusetts, and Ada’s reflections on Dublin and the Irish countryside evoke the period beautifully.
But the story begins to shift as Ada is catches the attention of the gruff Patrick Crohan, a colleague of Daniel’s. As love between Daniel and Ada grows, Patrick’s behaviour becomes progressively more sinister, foreshadowing a coming storm. Suspense in this novel builds carefully and slowly, and culminates in a horrifying crime.
Miss Emily is a story of friendship and courage, and is almost entirely about women: their passions and their fears. There is also the element of class struggle, and the question of whether justice for women is in the realm of possibility. Despite its bland appearance, Miss Emily consistently made me want to read on!