Irish-Canadian literary critic Anakana Schofield’s first novel is a tumultuous ride. Malarky asks questions without providing answers, chronicling the emotional, mental, and occasionally menial anxieties of Our Woman as she struggles with her own agency and desire. Set in contemporary Ireland, the book overflows with subtle and sometimes subversive allusions to James Joyce’s Ulysses, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, site-specific contemporary Irish art, and Catholic history. Yet Schofield’s strong prose style and inventive approach to structure will likely reward readers unfamiliar with these cultural references.
The episodic structure of Malarky draws attention to the novel’s title, with each distinct episode accommodating rapid-fire switches in tense and point of view, playing with narrative and challenging the reader’s trust in multiple unreliable narrators. Schofield’s formal experimentation is in perfect tandem with her thematic content.
Our Woman oscillates between trying to please the men in her life – her withdrawn husband, tellingly referred to as “Himself,” and her adoring gay son, Jimmy – and trying to discern how to achieve her own empowered pleasure. She becomes obsessed with sex as a path to such empowerment, and takes a young lover after discovering her husband’s infidelity and the bodily joy Jimmy finds with other young men.
Schofield has set herself in dialogue with a long literary tradition of fallen women, and Our Woman’s quest for authority does not end well. Unfortunately, it is at the moment of Our Woman’s snap into psychosis that Malarky’s structural conceit begins to show signs of strain. The terrible desperation and mania that Our Woman experiences is spread too thinly across the many voices relaying her story, and the effect dilutes the strength of what could have been an exceptionally powerful climax to a sorrowful and moving novel.
Despite this flaw, Malarky remains an extraordinary book thanks to its plainly beautiful prose, as well as its expansive and experimental spirit.