I COULD READ THE SKY by Timothy O’Grady
Date: May 5, 2015
Details: Reading Group Choice
The experience of Irish emigration has never been more lyrically set out than in this novel, beautiful both for its words and for its images. It tells the story of one man's journey from the West of Ireland to the fields and boxing-booths and building sites of England. Now, at the century's end, he finds himself alone, looking back, struggling to make sense of a life of dislocation and loss and one of unforgotten loveliness.
The book is written the way memory works. Sometimes the narrator looks back to the past and sometimes he is there, in the past, telling us about events and people as if they’re happening now – he’s lost in his memories, or maybe that’s where he finds himself. As a result this is not a linear story. There are moments when it was completely unclear to me whether we were in the past or the present but overall that didn’t make a difference.
While this book tells the story, as described in the blurb, of a man forced to move from the West of Ireland to England for work and does have a clear beginning and a powerful end – In the morning light I let go – there is no real story to summarize. This is a reflection on a life. A patchwork of memories and impressions – a lot of them bleak but a few so bright they almost light up the page. I won’t attempt to write my normal review. Instead I’ve collected thoughts and quotes as I read which I’ll share below and use as a tool to remember the book and the feelings it created in me, by.
I could read the sky: One of the things the narrator lists as what he could do (Chapter 9).
“What I could do.
I could mend nets. Thatch a roof. Build stairs. Make a basket from reeds. Splint the leg of a cow. Cut turf. Build a wall. Go three rounds with Joe in the ring Da put up in the barn. I could dance sets. Read the sky. Make a barrel for mackerel. Mend roads. Make a boat. Stuff a saddle. Put a wheel on a cart. Strike a deal. Make a field. Work the swarth turner, the float and the thresher. I could read the sea. Shoot straight. Make a shoe. Shear sheep. Remember poems. Set potatoes. Plough and harrow. Read the wind. Tend bees. Bind wyndes. Make a coffin. Take a drink. I could frighten you with stories. I knew a song to sing to a cow when milking. I could play twenty-seven tunes on my accordion.”
He could do so much, and yet it seems to amount to so very little in practical terms.
This book was at times rather devastating, like when I read the narrator’s thoughts and feelings on his first night in England.
“I feel in my pockets. I wonder have I the fare home and if I can find the way. I think of the bed I left in Labasheeda. Outside it is dark and the road full of twists I know nothing of. There is no way back now. I am to pick potatoes and lie down at night in this loft. I am to be in England living with pigs.”
Or when the narrator asks another Irish man in England what it’s like working there.
“It’s like you’re trying to talk to somebody out of a deep black hole, he says.”
The following sounds like the lament of an exile and especially the last one – stop remembering – breaks my heart.
“What I couldn’t do.
Eat a meal lacking potatoes. Trust banks. Wear a watch. Ask a woman to go for a walk. Work with drains or with objects smaller than a nail. Drive a motor car. Eat tomatoes. Remember the routes of buses. Wear a collar in comfort. Win at cards. Acknowledge the Queen. Abide loud voices. Perform the manners of greeting and leaving. Save money. Take pleasure in work carried out in a factory. Drink coffee. Look into a wound. Follow cricket. Understand the speech of a man from west Kerry. Wear shoes or boots made from rubber. Best P.J. in an argument. Speak with men wearing collars. Stay afloat in water. Understand their jokes. Face the dentist. Kill a Sunday. Stop remembering.”
Memories, they are such fickle things. It’s not always the big momentous events that stay with us. All too often the small details – insignificant at the time – are the ones which come back in glorious detail years later.
“I’m walking behind a red-haired man with mud on his boots, the trousers falling off him, the paper rolled up in his jacket pocket and him taking the two sides of the pavement from all the drink and I know it is me. I know it is all of us.”
Lines like the one quoted above broke my heart. How lonely the life of many exiled Irish men in England was.
“I read a book once, he says. I read many one time. The thing about a book is that the man who is writing it brings all the lives from all the different places and makes them flow together in the same stream. As they move down towards the end it’s like they have loops and holes and shapes that all fit together just nicely so that they’re just one big piece really. You can look back and see how all of them got where they are. That’s the time the writer brings the book to an end and there’s no seeing past it. I’d like to meet the man who wrote a book like that so I could ask him where he got those lives.”
“(...)I can see as I look from the side at the arrangement of brow and nose something of what she was when she was a girl and nothing had disappointed her.” – The narrator about a sister he hasn’t seen in years.
These thoughts about music rang true for me; music can indeed do all these things.
“Music happens inside you. It moves the things that are there from place to place. It can make them fly. It can bring you the past. It can bring you things that you do not know. It can bring you into the moment that is happening. It can bring you a cure.”
The time the narrator knows love with his Maggie seems all too short in the full tale of his life. His thoughts about going on without the one you’ve loved with all your heart are both eloquent and heartbreaking.
“What is it to miss someone? (...)It is the feeling of being in a strange place and losing direction. It is the feeling of looking without seeing and eating without tasting. It is forgetfulness, the inability to move, the inability to connect. It is a sentence you must serve and if the person you miss is dead your sentence is long.”
This is a short book containing a lot of beautiful black and white photographs. And yet the words tell the complete story of the life forced away from everything it knew and the near impossibility of finding home again. These words will stay with me for a long time.