Irish writer Dorothy Nelson’s short novel In Night’s City is the story of a family in which love and abuse can never be uncoiled. First published in Ireland in 1982, the book is now being released in the United States as part of the Dalkey Archive Press’s Irish Literature Series (which also includes Nelson’s second novel, Tar and Feathers).
Short and harrowing, In Night’s City opens on the night of the father’s death and ends the night of his funeral. It is the story of the women of the family: Sara and her mother Esther. From the first page we know that Sara has been physically abused by her father and emotionally neglected by her mother, herself abused. The family members revolve around each other like satellites, never touching or communicating, but never able to escape. “Can’t you hear me, Ma? Can’t you hear what I’m not saying, like I heard you?” Sara implores.
As the narrative loops back and forth in time and subject, we watch as repression is constructed. In the end, both narrators are so deeply immersed in the abuse that it is only Maggie, a persona Sara invents to endure the pain (“I felt the Dark touchin’ me funny an’ I was cryin’ so Maggie came an’ he touched Maggie funny not me. Not me,”) who can clearly express the truth about this family.
The story is nasty but the language is often stunning as stream-of-consciousness and Irish vernacular combine in a rough beauty. “It stretched out in my mind S.A.R.A. Each letter was a word in itself, and I thinking sometime I will take it and plant it in Father’s garden,” says Esther.
The only real affection shown is in Esther’s aching remembrances of her dead sister whose “hair streak[ed] down her back like the reflections of fire through a glass window.” These brief moments have a power that the rest of the narrative lacks; they show why, despite all there is to admire in the book, one is never fully immersed in it. When we know from the beginning the horror that exists in this family, we are—like Esther and Sara—numbed, not shocked by further revelations. Despite their distinctive voices, the two women never quite come alive; their lives are so infected by cruelty that the underlying individual just drifts away. It feels like there is no cohesion holding there characters together.
In the end, the only surprise is the extent to which repression—and a stunted, stunting love—will extend.
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