Penelope Unbound, by Mary Morrissy

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Reviewed by Rob Spence

I was once assured by a James Joyce scholar that there was more critical material on Joyce than there was on Shakespeare – pretty good going, considering the Bard had three hundred years’ start.  And it’s not just the literary critics who are attracted to the works of the myopic Irishman: like Shakespeare, his life has inspired some notable works of fiction. Joining that list is this splendid novel by Mary Morrissy, which hinges on an intriguing hypothetical, a “sliding doors” moment in the author’s life. 

As the briefest biography of Joyce will inform the reader (and it’s as well to know an outline before reading this, as it will definitely enhance your enjoyment), he left Ireland in 1904 to head to the continent, accompanied by Nora Barnacle, a working-class woman he had met in Dublin. After a week in Zurich, where he failed to land a position at the Berlitz School, the couple travelled to Trieste, hoping to find a job at the Berlitz branch there. He did not, but was directed to Pola (now in Croatia), where he did secure a post, but as soon as a vacancy occurred in Trieste in early 1905, Joyce and Nora moved there, and it was there that some of Joyce’s most significant work was done.

Mary Morrissy’s narrative begins in 1915, but we are soon back in 1904 on the first night of the couple’s arrival at Trieste, after a fractious and exhausting journey from Zurich. Joyce leaves Nora at the station, aiming to call at the Berlitz School, but in Morrissy’s tale, he does not return, and hours later, fainting from hunger, Nora decides he has abandoned her, and allows herself to be carried off to a different life. This is the point of departure where the fiction takes over from the biography, and the reader is now inducted into Nora’s Triestine world. Nora (or Norah – the spelling is a running joke throughout the text) is the focus of the plot, and the narrative is delivered from her perspective in a free indirect style that captures her voice very believably. Here she is, wondering how she is going to manage in the strange environment she finds herself in:

“Me, Mister Gentleman finally says, Meester Schmitz.

Mister Smith, sounds like. That old chestnut!

You? he queries, pointing.

She’d better say nothing, particularly if this fella speaks English, so she clamps her lips together. But he just stands there and waits. Looks fierce respectable, hat off now, polished shoes, older than her Jim. My Jim, what a laugh, no my about it. And still he waits and it’s like those card games with Uncle Tommy where Mamo would take so long to throw down, she’d force someone else to declare.”

Nora’s encounters with the Italian language are by turns hilarious and poignant, conveying very cleverly her confusion and her struggle to understand and be understood. It’s difficult to say more about this without giving some of the plot away, but the scenes in the upper-class home in which she finds herself are delightfully done, offering a cast of authentic (because historically real) characters against whom Nora’s indomitable spirit is pitched. 

This is not the first time that Nora has been the subject of a work of fiction: Nuala O’Connor published her biofiction Nora just two years ago, and the full-scale biography by Brenda Maddox is a standard work. Of course, there is a mountain of biographical material on Joyce, in which Nora figures prominently. So it is hugely to Mary Morrissy’s credit that she has fashioned this involving, moving and engaging novel out of such well-known elements. If you know something about Joyce, about Trieste, and about Italo Svevo, your understanding will be enriched by the allusions that are scattered through the text: but those allusions are never intrusive, and the reimagined life of Nora that emerges from these pages requires no more than a properly attentive reader. I was captivated by this inventive and original book, told in Nora’s distinctively down-to-earth voice, and look forward to reading more of Mary Morrissy’s work.

Rob Spence’s home on the web is at robspence.org.uk. He is also on Bluesky: @spencro.bsky.social

Mary Morrissy, Penelope Unbound, (Banshee Press, 2023), 978-1-838312688, 310pp., paperback.

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1 comment

  1. I just finished reading Mary Morrissy’s debut ‘Mother of Pearl’ which was excellent. I read it because I want to read ‘Penelope Unbound’, but preferred to read another novel first to familiarise with her voice.

    Nuala O’Connor’s ‘Nora’ was an incredible insight into their life, Norah is a wonderful character, though their life is often challenging, not to mention the difficulty of raising children in the environment within which they lived.

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