A Ghost In The Throat, by Doireann Ni Ghríofa

Juliano Zaffino

“This is a female text.” A clear declaration of feminine literary intent, the mapping of body onto text, text onto body, begins and ends in Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s genre-defying prose debut A Ghost In The Throat. It continuously circles back to that, too – through essay and autofiction, in English and Gaelic, Ní Ghríofa tells the story of a present-day woman and young mother (who both is and isn’t her) and the eighteenth-century poet Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill with whom she has become helplessly obsessed: “For such unnamed women to take a family’s story and rewrite it by flame – this is a female text.”

The story of Eibhlín Dubh and her incredibly singular work (translated in full at the end of A Ghost In The Throat, an intrepid postscript), her status as an obscure and near-forgotten Irish female poet, is one strand of this book’s twin braid. The other is the story of this (auto)fictitious mother, struggling against the trauma of near-tragedy and the demanding everyday of modern motherhood, wifehood, womanhood-at-large.

Historical and artistic echoes are felt and observed not only in text and body, but in landscape and (ghostly) architecture, too – in ways imperceptible to a world seemingly dismissive both of Dubh’s legacy and of the book’s narrator also. “He walks away, leaving me perched on a six-bar gate, peering at the empty air where a poem of beautiful rooms once stood, each stanza holding its own careful litany […] Now: nothing. Another grand deletion, this. Another ordinary obliteration of a woman’s life. The farmer is right, I am looking at nothing. I am also looking at everything.” This “grand deletion” and “ordinary obliteration of a woman’s life”, shockingly urgent and mundane at once, is imbued with quiet rage and bewilderment. There is desperation at work in the narrator’s compulsive immersion in Eibhlín Dubh’s life and work: in her own fear of effacement, she seeks to unravel time itself, to save a memory.

It is uncomfortable, maybe, to try coming to terms with one’s life through the lens of another, especially one so steeped in tragedy, death, grief. “In writing their lives from this distance,”, Ní Ghríofa’s narrator observes in the depths of her project, “I am haunted both by the sense of looming catastrophe and by my own complicity, for in recounting this horror I must inflict it all over again. I wish I could stop the pain this telling will soon cast over Eibhlín Dubh, but I can’t. The past never ends. Or, worse, the past tells us how it ends. Over, it says, over and over again.” Cyclical and inescapable; if only it was possible to learn from it. For Ní Ghríofa, it is a matter of telling yourself the story, and then telling the story elsewhere. Everywhere. Let it live on the page, let it live in your voice, let it live in your body.

Ultimately, Ní Ghríofa’s greatest success (subjectively speaking) is that her book provides the most perfect and indirect review of itself within its own pages, its focus on self-kindness and -forgiveness, and on the inexpressible, the weight of both sound and silence, especially on the page. “I try to accept this fact while showing myself compassion. I have gained so much from my work… my favourite element hovers beyond the text, in the untranslatable pale space between stanzas, where I sense a female breath lingering on the stairs, still present, somehow, long after the body has hurried onwards to breathe elsewhere. If I have left something of myself within this translation, it is only the weary sigh that leaves my lungs when, at last, I make myself close the document and move on.” The first and best draft of this review was just those few sentences and nothing else. How frustrating, that Ní Ghríofa should unwittingly make the reviewer redundant.

Regardless: the female breath is blessedly inescapable, the bodily made spiritual. The words spirit and breath are etymologically bound, most famously perhaps in depictions of the Holy Spirit, in the Pentecostal wind that brings language and knowledge and an activation for the soul. It exits the body as a physical thing and, ghostly, “lingers” to haunt and populate forever, full of potential, “hover[ing] beyond” the written word but bound to it nonetheless, the “pale space” on the page. And then this concept, so dazzlingly articulated, of having “left something of myself” within the written word, a kind of reverse-possession through the very act of conjuring, the conjurer possessing whatever spirit she invokes. “It is only the weary sigh”: protesting too much, as if breath weighted with pain and time and exertion is nothing, is not a concentrated kind of spirit. As if we are not living in a time of universal respiratory distress, where each and every breath is a triumph.

Fittingly, a book so unreal, so charged with living and dead energy, with legacies of the dead barely salvageable and those not even yet begun in earnest, is as hard to elucidate as it is to categorise. It is neither memoir nor novel, essay nor yarn; it is not a quaint beach read nor some kind of intellectual brick.

Here’s what it is: a vital and quietly insistent weaving of voices crying out to be heard and remembered. It is brilliantly written, Ní Ghríofa’s reputation as a poet paving the way for such staggeringly sonic, rolling prose. And it is a feminist exclamation mark, imploring from the beginning: “Join in”, Ní Ghríofa insists. You will and you must, because there is so much at stake; because there is little alternative; because the echo demands hearing, an acknowledgement. “This is a female text.”

A Ghost In The Throat, by Doireann Ní Ghríofa, was published 27 August 2020 by Tramp Press. (It was originally scheduled to be published earlier in the year but was delayed due to COVID-19.) 

Juliano Zaffino is a writer and reader, and runs the online literary community YourShelf, including The YourShelf Podcast and The YourShelf Press. His debut poetry collection, All Those Bodies And They’re Moving, was published 31 January 2020. Currently, he is studying for his PhD in ‘Cutting Shakespeare’, with the Shakespeare Institute and the Royal Shakespeare Company. You can find Jay on both Instagram and Twitter as @jayzaff and @_yourshelf_.