The Last Pair of Ears
by Mary F McDonough
One of the stranger aspects of this year’s First Book of the Year shortlist is the number of books that prominently feature body parts (four out of six makes a trend!): ‘The Rental Heart’ and ‘Any Other Mouth’ are named for them; ‘The Monster’s Wife’ teems with lost limbs and vital organs. ‘The Last Pair of Ears’ shares this anatomical obsession, though with rather less of a visceral bent than its fellow nominees. There’s no blood, or ticking chest cavities here but instead a more emotional evocation of the power of listening; as McDonough puts it in her introductory note, the collection is ‘about seeing and hearing what we aren’t supposed to notice. […] The focus of this collection is on “lost stories” that have been overlooked, suppressed, or forgotten. In large part, these stories reflect aspects of, and are consistent with “female” experience. Such stories tend to be marked by flux and loss.’
The book bears all the hallmarks of a writer who has worked as a therapist – McDonough’s interest clearly lies in puzzling out the emotional processes that underpin even the most mundane of lives. So we are witness to tiny yet formative childhood experiences, both from the viewpoint of child (‘Leg-Shaving and Other Lies) and parent (‘Front Lines’), to jaded spouses (‘Making the Bed) and grieving widowers ('Apple Snow'). Many of these are tiny studies, brief snatches of experiences on which McDonough lifts the curtain to let us see a stinging emotion, before bringing it down and moving to the next scene. However, there is one strand which recurs and, for me, it is the most effective aspect of the book.
McDonough returns again and again to a nursing home, in which a woman visits her dementia-beset mother and reflects on her deteriorating condition, as well as the community that exists between the residents. There are the emotional scenes one would expect from such a setting and they are highly effective in creating a horribly recognisable inevitability:
She has lost her ‘hallelujah’. She croons ah-oo, a-le-oo; ah-oo, a-le-loo, as soon as she sees me. Her sadness, palpable, washes over and sticks to me. Ah-oo? Ah-le-loo?, she insists, as I try to get her to drink. She takes a few sips, and coughs, weakly, before chanting ah-oo, a-le-loo again. She isn’t swallowing any more; she can’t; the neurologic program is gone, another thing she has lost. She will not sleep. There is nothing I can do but hold her hand, so I do that.
(from ‘More Broken’)
But there is also humour, McDonough working hard to infuse her writing with the surrealness of institutional life, both in tiny details – referring to each old lady by an accoutrement, ‘pink cardie’ or ‘pin curls’, rather than by name – and whole stories:
They just cannae stand each ither, hen. It’s f’y auld
reasons, y’ken, auld ones. The one live doon th’street f’y
the other for 40, 50 year.
The nursing assistant eyes them warily.
They may not be far enough apart, hen. Can you help
me move this lady over there?
Glasses and Necklaces don’t even open their eyes any more.
But they can tell when “she” comes into the dining room,
and God help anyone foolish enough to let them sit near
(from ‘Allies and Enemies’)
This strange contrast, of finding things to laugh about in the midst of pain and suffering, is one most of us would recognise and McDonough nails it in her nursing home sections, with scenes that ring remarkable true. Moreover, she even finds time for some social commentary - in ‘Battery Grannies’ she shows a particularly intelligent use of source material, juxtaposing borrowed lines with her own poetry to drive home a comparison between nursing homes and battery farms:
Some have strange hock burns; do-gooders accuse us of
leaving occupants lying in their own shit,
but we just can’t train them to stand.
we feed them, but then
they cannot support their increased body weight.
First too weak, then too fat. A conundrum.
Despite this emotional depth and intelligence, though, ‘The Last Pair of Ears’ is lacking a similar complexity in its form and structure. Unlike some of the other entries on the shortlist, McDonough’s collection is fairly straightforward, without any stylistic flourishes or innovative features to elevate it. Arguably, such things come second to good story or emotional heft but, when compared to the beauty of ‘The Rental Heart…’, the disjointed structure of ‘Any Other Mouth’, or the meta-reflexivity of ‘Moontide’, this collection falls a little short. Throughout, I felt myself wishing that something unexpected would happen, or some image or turn of phrase would catch my attention but I was left disappointed. ‘The Last Pair of Ears’ achieves its stated goal, to explore ‘the power of narrative to heal as well as to distort and influence’ but never goes beyond this to attain the depth of some of its fellow nominees. That said, I suspect that the memory of Pink Cardie’s lost hallelujah will stay with me for a long time and perhaps that impact is more important than anything else a writer can do.