Book Review: Oona – Alice Lyons

Posted May 11, 2020 in Print

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Alice Lyons

The Lilliput Press

The Oulipo movement that arose in France in the 1960s was a loose gathering of writers and mathematicians who sought to create literary artworks using strict compositional parameters. One of its main proponents was the inimitable Georges Perec. Among Perec’s more esoteric achievements was the lipogramatic novel La Disparition (“The Disappearance”), a work composed entirely without using the letter e. It’s worth noting that both of Perec’s parents perished during World War II, and the uneasy absence of the letter e in the novel has been interpreted by some as a metaphor for Perec’s traumatic loss.

Similarly, a tragic spirit looms over Alice Lyons’ debut novel, Oona: the premature and hushed death of her mother from cancer. As though to signal this, the novel (with the exception of its title and one short intermezzo intentionally headed ‘– o –’) is wholly bereft of the round vowel, whose hermetic glyph can articulate surprise, lyric utterance, sexual pleasure and, of course, elegiac grief. And here is where Perec’s original precedent haunts the work. With that said, Lyons’s o-mission amounts to a rare technical marvel in its own right.

For Oona, an aspiring painter, ‘O’ represents the ocular, the Eye, the holism of the artist’s gaze, and so ultimately the ‘I’ of subjectivity, the emptied self. But O, also denoting an empty centre and point of origin–the Mother/Other–has vanished, rending a hole in the world, making double-o Oona feel un-whole, alienated, ‘an _rphan’. Lyons’ world-orphaned, confessional voice and self-fascination clearly mines a seam of the great American tradition epitomised by Walt Whitman’s proto-slacker epic, Song of Myself. As Oona asserts: ‘Myself intrigues me.’

Deep into the novel, Oona decides to move from her native New Jersey to Ireland, where as a visiting student in the 1980s she had gained much inspiration. She relocates to rainy Leitrim and settles in Cootehall: a backwater clustered around a large verdant triangular field surrounded by traditional stone walls and, at its extremities, a church, a pub, a barracks (John McGahern’s childhood home) and little else. Lyons, to her credit, faithfully if painstakingly captures the stark landscape, slow pace, and offbeat character of an artist’s life in the rural Northwest. Meanwhile, Oona’s attentiveness to the materiality of the world around her is matched by an equal love of the coloured dyes, strong-smelling turps, and other miscible wonders of her craft. Our observant narrator inundates us with immersive depiction, though her painterly eye occasionally brings it a little too far with a fastidious over-attentiveness to (often literally) granular detail.

The novel – more elongated prose-poem – is book-ended by two colour-plate reproductions of the Sienese master Sano di Pietro’s San Bernadino Resuscitating a Drowned Child. This devotional work clearly stands as an artistic and spiritual touchstone for our narrator. The rainwater barrel in which the child lies is ‘shaped like a cerulean eye […] unblinking […] The shape is like an alphabet letter – my name has a pair,’ Oona muses. The ode to self comes full circle. A volume very much devoted to visual art, and disciples thereof.

Words: Tom Tracey


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