I enjoyed reading Anakana Schofield's Malarky. It engaged my attention from the beginning, and it sustained attention through the appeal of its down-to-earth protagonist, its narrative of the protagonist's odyssey of self-discovery, and its quietly compelling style. It is an impressive first novel.
However, the reception of Schofield's novel has prominently emphasized its "experimental" qualities. In her review, for example, Emily Keeler refers to "its expansive and experimental spirit." Sharon Chisvin notes its "strangeness. . .in plot, structure, language and characterization." The novel's episodic narrative and fractured chronology in particular have been identified as creating this sense of "strangeness."
Despite my ultimate admiration for Malarky, I just can't accept that there's anything particularly experimental or innovative about it. The fragmentary narrative is effective, but it's hardly at this stage in literary history an innovative or shocking move. "Linear narrative" has been in retreat since modernism, to the extent that it's somewhat unusual these days to read a novel that is truly "linear" in the fashion of 19th century fiction. Similarly, the scrambled chronology works well in this novel, but Anakana Schofield is certainly not the first writer to think of using this strategy as a way of suggesting the operations of memory or of reflecting the unstable state of a character's mind. Schofield has artfully used both of these strategies in Malarky--they are perhaps the only strategies she could have used this successfully given the story she wanted to tell and the characters she wanted to evoke--but to call them "experimental" tells us less about this novel than it does about some readers' inability to consider the novel in its appropriate context.
There's nothing really "strange" about the characters in Malarky, although referring to the protagonist, an ordinary Irish farm wife, as "Our Woman," and to her loutish husband as "Himself" does create a certain oddity in the narrative. The novel's other major character, Our Woman's gay son Jimmy, is a somewhat mysterious figure, due to the fact that we really perceive him only from a distance, through Our Woman's recollections and in scenes witnessed by her but not presented to us directly. Jimmy is ultimately a mysterious figure to Our Woman as well, as her discovery that her son is gay (a literal discovery when she comes upon him having sex with another boy) is one of the events that leads her to question her assumptions about the life she has led and sets her on a journey that will end only after both Jimmy and her husband are dead and she has been hospitalized for a mental breakdown. Our Woman also discovers, through a meeting with a woman calling herself "Red the Twit," that Himself has apparently had an affair with her (Red the Twit turns out to be not so reliable a source, however). In response, Our Woman decides to engage in her own extramarital sexual explorations, encountering a card salesman (Card Man), who turns out to be something of a nonentity, and Halim, a Syrian security guard who is rather more interesting. Halim's sexual interest in Our Woman seems closely related to his interest in the biological realities of reproduction, and he repeatedly questions Our Woman about what it is like to give birth.
Our Woman's experiences are presented to us in a discontinuous form, moving freely through various stages of her relationships with Jimmy, her husband, and her lovers, including sessions Our Woman eventually has with a counsellor, "Grief," after her hospitalization. The novel might be called "expansive" in the way it seems to bring all of these stages of the protagonist's life into the narrative "present," and eventually even to blur the line between past and present through this shuffling of chronology, but really Malarky is a remarkably honed and concentrated work that in spite of its disjunctions might be described as "poetic" in its unity of effect rather than experimental in its breaking of form. It might indeed also be called "expansive" in its portrayal of a woman seeking to enlarge her own sense of possibility (as well as her understanding of the world), but this is the novel's thematic focus, not a formal quality.
The most admirable feature of Malarky is its idiom-inflected language, which evokes Our Woman's speech patterns--sometimes directly, as parts of the narrative are related in the first-person--without losing the appeal of her Irish-flavored speech by in effect burying it in a psychological realism that goes too deeply into the perceiving consciousness of the character, where distinctions of idiom and accent disappear into generic "thought." Nevertheless, the novel's style does work to augment character, helping us to feel closer to Our Woman, at the same time it influences us to apprehend her world as she does, delineating that world in a dynamic and often memorable way, as when she begins to consider Jimmy's behavior shortly after realizing he must be homosexual:
Of course she worried tall that it was off to Patsy's boy he was. It there was a way to separate them, she'd build a wall for the sake of it. She'd to steady herself into the chair as it came back to her again. She pulled the cushion, the strange one with off-colour ducks on it that one of the girls had embroidered for her and now she couldn't recall who and she wanted to recall who because she wanted her mind cleared of what was rolling in to remind her of that night. It was Jimmy. All Jimmy. She couldn't blame the other boy for he was the younger. If she'd turned away she could have saved herself. but she did not. Every time she saw a cup or glass of orange squash, it would come back to her. She was in it now.
Passages such as this occasionally require somewhat more patient reading in order to untwist the syntax or to "hear" the voice. One might thus say that in this way, along with the novel's fragmented structure, Malarky asks for a more active reader, but neither the structure nor the language is so utterly unfamiliar that they would really disconcert an attentive reader. Schofield has written a novel that draws on existing strategies that nevertheless don't allow the reader to fall back on the most conventional expectations of sequential plot and transparent prose, but the conventions of fiction, the strategies and techniques a writer might draw upon, have surely developed enough beyond those that existed a century ago that a work taking advantage of these later developed strategies would not still be viewed as experimental. (To regard it as such would be unfair not just to other works that might indeed be called experimental but to a work like Malarky itself, applying standards or criteria that are inappropriate for judging it.) Malarky uses its chosen strategies very effectively, and that is the sign of its artistry, not the degree of its "experimental spirit."
Perhaps the clearest mark of her artistry is the way in which Anakana Schofield employs the formal and stylistic devices found in Malarky to produce a novel of considerable emotional power. Our Woman is a convincingly invoked character who earns our sympathetic response, both to her confusion when faced with the apparent breakdown of her marriage (or the breakdown of her role as "wife") and with the probability that her son is gay, as well as to her subsequent attempts to change herself. The novel's final words has Our Woman reflecting that "It's beautiful when it all makes sense, so it is. Occasionally it makes sense, just for a moment," and Malarky is most successful as the portrayal of Our Woman's attempts to make her life make sense. In this way we could say that the novel's fragmented form reinforces the protagonist's quest by asking the reader to help make sense of the narrative by piecing together its continuity in a more exacting way than other stories of self-realization might. The reward is worth the effort, however, as when we finish the novel we feel we have reached a "moment" of aesthetic completion that might not have been possible had Schofield used some other narrative form.
It is the triumph of Malarky that by the end its main character seems conjured fully into life but also that this has been accomplished not through obvious appeals to emotion or overdramatizing but through the clarity and rigor of style and structure skillfully applied. This need not lead us to categorize it as an experimental work, but it should prompt us to call it a very good novel.