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Dublin: 12 °C Wednesday 8 July, 2020

Hilary Fannin: 'My mother longed for freedom, for a romantic-whirlwind kind of world that existed far beyond our garden wall'

Author Hilary Fannin writes about her late mother, and how their relationship coloured her life.

Hilary Fannin

THE FIRST QUESTION people ask when they hear you’ve written a book is: “What’s it about?” A reasonable question, and one, it’d be fair to assume, that the author, of all people, might be expected to provide an answer to.

“I didn’t know you’d written a book,” the woman in my local post office said recently, when I went in to buy a jiffy bag for a copy of my first novel, The Weight of Love, which I was sending to a friend.

“Yep,” I nodded, knowing exactly what was coming next.

“What’s it about?”

“Eh, well . . .”

The Weight of Love is, I suppose, a love story; one that aspires, I might have told her, to realism more than romance. It concerns itself with three characters who find themselves in a triangulated relationship, with one another and with their shared past.

It is also, I might have added (although by now an impatient queue would be forming behind me), a novel about mothers; about having them and despairing of them, about being too close and too distant from them, about recognising their flawed humanity and coming to terms with the magnitude of losing them.

Having written a memoir called Hopscotch (published by Doubleday) a few years ago, I began to write fiction in earnest in 2017 when, in my fifties, I went to Trinity College Dublin to do an MPhil in creative writing. Since leaving school without any qualifications, I’d dreamed of going to college, and that year, as I was bobbing around in the rough seas of my mother’s final illness, I learned that, despite my lack of academic prowess, I’d been accepted on to a master’s programme.

My mother died a couple of weeks before the start of the academic year, just as I’d been about to ask for a deferment in order to focus on her needs. It is probably no surprise then that the choices made by the characters in The Weight of Love – two of whom are the sons of single mothers – are deeply influenced by their maternal relationships, just as my own mother is somehow at the root, I now understand, of pretty much all the stories I tell.

There were lots of other people’s mothers, too, shimmering behind the frosted glass on the suburban Dublin road I grew up on in the 1960s. They gathered in the corner shop to buy Liga and Farley’s rusks for the babies parked outside in prams the size of automobiles.

They knelt in their porches, a cylinder of Vim within easy reach of their rubber-gloved hands, to clean the mud from the polished stone. They knitted cardigans and boiled bacon and warned us children not to fall into a ditch, for fear that we’d crawl out of it again with polio.

My mother didn’t quite fit the bill. She cooked spaghetti and sang scales and painted her nails pillar-box red and went on endless diets and drew a beauty spot below her cheek with her eyebrow pencil. She was an actress and a singer; she had a drawerful of hairpieces and false eyelashes and pan sticks and plastic beads. She was the only mother on our road who wouldn’t put the bins out without her make-up on.

She was glamorous and disappointed and resilient and unpredictable and funny and sad, and sometimes she was glorious and she looked, the neighbours said, with her carmine lips and jet-black hair, like Gina Lollobrigida. (And I do see and acknowledge the contradiction in her conformity to the feminine, rather than the burgeoning feminist, standards of the day, alongside her desire to break free of the strictures in her life.)

I’m interested in her generation of Irish women, in those who tried to push beyond the limitations of patriarchy but who got caught up anyway in the aspic of domesticity, childbirth and financial dependency.

My mother longed for freedom, for recognition, for a romantic-whirlwind kind of world that she sensed rather than knew, one that existed far beyond the boundaries of our garden wall. And while her style of mothering (a word that makes me feel oddly queasy) may not have been entirely reliable or in tune with those punctilious times, she gave me, in the end, more than I could have asked for. She shared with me her ability to imagine other realities, to create other stories, to conjure other endings, to become, for a while at least, another self in another life. And that’s not too bad a toolbox for a writer to inherit.

Later on, her fiery hunger for independence may have been snuffed out, but she remained a gregarious, entertaining and glamorous woman right up until the end.

The very last thing I was able to do for her was to choose an outfit to send with her to the undertaker. I gathered together some lovely colourful clothes that had been gifted to her by friends and family for her 90th birthday just a few months beforehand. I packed, too, her favourite lipstick and her trusted eyebrow pencil.

She never went anywhere without her “face on”, I explained to the gentle woman in the funeral home, and this, her final journey, should be no exception.

The Weight of Love by Hilary Fannin, published by Doubleday Ireland, is out now.

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