Book Review – A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa

This is a female text.’

A Ghost in the Throat, by Doireann Ní Ghríofa, is a work of profound beauty, and unlike anything I have ever read before. The book is billed as a blend of ‘essay and auto-fiction’; drawing from the author’s own story, but not bound by it. However, eschewing neat categorisation under any one genre, its reach goes beyond this to offer up rich insights into history, literature, biology, and more. Previously, Ní Ghríofa’s primary focus was on poetry. The influence of poetry becomes apparent early on in this prose debut; there are many passages where the writing style lies somewhere in between, drawing us beyond the realms of straight prose. Rhythmic, lilting, lyrical and fluid, we are carried on a wave of Ní Ghríofa’s words.

Our author carries us with her on a journey: a poem, first encountered with little interest as a child, is re-encountered during the heady and emotional years of teenagehood, and becomes an obsession. The poem in question is Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire, or The Keen for Art Ó Laoghaire, composed in Irish by his wife Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, following his murder in 1773.

As time moves on, and Ní Ghríofa becomes a mother, this obsession deepens. Immersing herself in the poem at every given opportunity, she becomes unsatisfied with the English translations, feeling Eibhlín’s voice has become somehow lost or muted, and so decides to do her own translation. To channel Eibhlín’s voice as best she can, she begins to look for traces of that voice in other text: history books, other archival sources and even family letters. Most of what she can find is via male voices; brief mentions of Eibhlín in relation to the men around her. As she delves further, she begins to find small snatches of Eibhlín’s life through female voices, but it’s when Ní Ghríofa begins to visit the places that played an important part in Eibhlín’s life that a richer image begins to emerge. The theme of female voices, perspectives and experiences is key to the work.

Our introduction to Ní Ghríofa is of a woman immersed, yet happy, in the exhaustion and drudgery of motherhood with young children. She comes across as a very passionate person – passionate about her own family, about Eibhlín, and about the poem which lies at the heart of her self-imposed task – so much so that this passion becomes something which courses through the very veins of the book. Once we are introduced to the character of Eibhlín, equally passionate and headstrong, we begin to feel that we are in the hands of strong female leads.

The act of giving of oneself – the many physical and emotional ways in which this applies in particular to women – plays an important part in this novel. In a difficult and unpredictable world, giving of oneself willingly is something one does have full control over. In Ní Ghríofa’s case, she gives relentlessly to her family, she also donates milk to other babies who need it, and she has even pledged her body to science. In giving of herself and her life through her devoted research, Ní Ghríofa is transmitting new life to Eibhlín. It’s after a particularly harrowing period of her life as a mother that she really throws herself headlong into the research. She goes to great lengths in her all-consuming research, exhausting all sources and exhausting herself, to find out more about her obsession. The act of translation is on several occasions likened to housework, a female labour; Ní Ghríofa’s masterful use of language imbues the whole journey with a sense of weight and physicality, which is then juxtaposed with the lightness of the mind’s ability to deftly and painstakingly reveal an erased past. 

The book is divided up into short enough chapters, most opening with a short excerpt from Eibhlín’s poem. Visually, this emphasises the sense of rhythm felt throughout the work, and keeps us anchored to the text which has inspired Ní Ghríofa. The work moves freely between eras, as Ní Ghríofa’s research starts to breath new life into Eibhlín’s story. There are many almost dreamlike sequences, where scenes from Eibhlín’s time, or another time and place yet again, bleed into Ní Ghríofa’s reality. While the story is primarily about these two women, and how their lives become intertwined, the work as a whole becomes representative of a more universal female experience. This merging of present with conjured past results in a work which is reverberating with echoes, where presences linger.

The power of words and language lies at the heart of this work. It’s the power of Eibhlin’s words which first bewitch the author; it’s the power of the author’s words which begin to revive Eibhlín; and it’s the power wielded by male voices, choosing largely to omit references to Eibhlín in their words, which creates a need for the work we are reading today in the first place.

I’ll devote myself to luring female lives back from male texts.’

In exploring the transmission of history, and of stories, Ní Ghríofa contemplates the importance of whose perspective we are seeing this history through. 

We cannot know from whose mouth the echoes of our lives will chime.’

To help her find Eibhlín’s voice, our author takes the historical information she unearths, but then fills in the gaps by harnessing and channeling her own experiences as a woman and mother.

 I compile a long list of facts and quotes, and then, as is my wont, I daydream it to life.’

There is a cyclical nature to the work, a sense of transmission, and of time moving on. We have joined Ní Ghríofa on an epic journey, where she gives of herself all-consumingly to those around her but, as the work nears a close, we begin to understand, along with our author, what she may have gained in return. 

Readers who enjoy being captivated, and transported to another place entirely, by the powers of lyrical writing will love this book. This is my first read by Ní Ghríofa but certainly not my last. 

A Ghost in the Throat is available either directly from publishers Tramp Press, or by supporting your favourite local bookshop.

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