“This is a female text”. This is the intonation that is weaved throughout this prose debut from Irish writer Doireann Ní Ghríofa. It rings with a singular clarity in what is otherwise a strange mixture of memoir, translated poetry and historical fiction.
We are introduced to Ní Ghríofa, previously published author of poetry, as she opens this book taking us through her ritualistic cycle of the endless household chores with which she structures her days. Being the mother of three, and subsequently four children, the chores and duty of care to each of them frequently consume her every waking minute. Her life is subsumed by motherhood, but she also exults in it, that tangle of emotion that any caregiver can empathise with.
During the pregnancy and birth of her fourth child and first daughter, Ní Ghríofa becomes increasingly obsessed with the famous Irish keen Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire or the Lament for Art Ó Laoghaire, composed by the 18th century Irish noblewoman Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill after the murder of her husband, Art. Primarily her focus is in working on her own translation of the oral epic, and indeed you are able to read the result at the end of the novel – although I would recommend reading this at the beginning, particularly if you are not as familiar with the work – but as time goes on, her fascination grows with the woman herself and her unknown fate.
As well as detailing how she juggled her research with caring for her newborn child and young sons, Ní Ghríofa also interweaves details of her own history, her youth and university years and imagined scenes from Eibhlin’s 18th century life, both before and after the killing of her husband. For me, in these two points are both the strength and the weakness of the novel. I found the chapters on Ní Ghríofa’s own experience of giving birth to her daughter prematurely and the aftercare endured in the hospital particularly moving, and another chapter on the period of time she attempted to study for a dentistry degree revolting and captivating in equal measure. In comparison, the pondering of what had happened to Eibhlin never quite captured my imagination in the same way that is so evidently did for Ní Ghríofa.
Her obsession with the 18th century Eibhlin is one of two halves in the novel. In the earlier chapters she is translating the poem into English from the Gaelic and finds joy from ordering the words to her satisfaction, comparing it to how she would methodically clean the rooms of her house. Her passion for translating is infectious, and you will find yourself flicking back and forth to the poem itself, enjoying its taking shape.
It is the latter half, where Ní Ghríofa endeavours to find tangible evidence of what had happened to Eibhlin, where the pacing can become somewhat sluggish. Ní Ghríofa admits consciously that she is struggling to let go of the fact that her children are growing older and more independent. She grieves that her youngest no longer needs to be breastfed, “the ritual of giving myself to another is exquisite.” There is some desperation in her hunt for the ghost of Eibhlin in the world around her at this point, to breath life into someone else when she cannot do it for another child.
A Ghost in the Throat is an unusual but engrossing memoir and prose debut. In Ní Ghríofa’s effort to breath life into the ghost of a woman, she simultaneously breathes life into the minutiae of her own. It is, most undoubtedly, a female text.
A Ghost in the Throat was published by Tramp Press on 28 October 2021