University College Dublin and Yale University
Fox, Swallow, Scarecrow by Eilis Ni Dhuibhne
(Blackstaff Press, 2007)
Anna K and Anna KS
In works by Heinrik Ibsen, Leo Tolstoy and Gustave Flaubert, a young wife (Nora, Anna or Emma) frets in a marriage of entrapment, indulges in wishful thinking, makes reckless choices born of naiveté, and pays a terrible price. Eilis ni Dhuibhne’s Fox, Swallow Scarecrow places Anna Kelly Sweeny in a tepid marriage. Her name, the arc of her story and many details explicitly reference Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. But unlike Anna K, Anna KS lives in the permissive, newly prosperous Ireland of the 1990s. Anna KS is not driven to leave her home, to consume arsenic, or to throw herself under a train. Her worst ordeal is to face the bitchy comments of her sister-in-law, in a well-realised scene over breakfast in a country hotel.
Ni Dhuibne follows Tolstoy by introducing Anna KS at the start of a journey, as she boards a Luas tram. Sleek, domesticated, it contrasts with the “noisy movements and heavy mass” of Tolstoy’s menacing steam train. Ni Duibhne establishes an unheroic world where the dominant mode is comic. The passengers “were in love with the tram”, because it is “fashionable.” As opposed to the “terrible death” of the workman, which Anna K feels is a “bad omen,” Anna KS witnesses nothing more upsetting than an altercation about queue-jumping, mildly coloured with class friction. In Fox, Swallow Scarecrow, a tram, as in Anna Karenina, a train, are not only the start-up engines of the adultery plot, but ultimately provide an exit, (one attuned to the distinct register of each novel), from the emotional and economic impasse where their adultery has led both of the Annas.
Comic characters often inhabit a chilly world, preoccupied with upward mobility. Here, in the social rituals of literary Dublin, desultory chatter barely cloaks a Darwinian scramble for status. This Ireland, Ni Dhuibhnne suggests, has left behind idealism. A frantic pursuit of commercial success is thinly overlaid with reference to personal or communal fulfilment: and that’s to speak only of the creative types. Anna KS writes children’s fantasy stories, and, unlike his counterpart, Tolstoy’s Stiva, her brother Gerry is not an amiable, adulterous, unsuccessful businessman but rather an amiable, adulterous, unsuccessful painter. Anna KS is more hard-boiled than Gerry: her appeal to the reader depends on her nimble adaptation to her milieu, an adaptation that ultimately stems from her husband Alex’s economic power. The shift to a comic mode puts few emotional and social obstacles in the way of her adulterous affair with Vincey.
Her world is at once tamer and more governed by randomness than Anna K’s. The scene where a protest march grows as a result of drift and accretion, to the extent that calls for the resignation of the Taoiseach “could be heard everywhere within a radius of half a mile or so,” ends with a reductive comment: “But the Taoiseach did not hear them, because he was away at a conference in Europe.”
The entrapped wife could stand for other thwarted ill-starred individuals within nineteenth-century society. “Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” Flaubert announced. For Anna KS, the denouement of the novel is partly about her becoming a real, a grown-up artist. Henceforth her writing will ring with greater authenticity, will achieve personal fulfilment. Henceforth “No talk of advances, bestsellers, pricing your book”. Such talk runs through Fox Swallow Scarecrow. In a shift to the first person, Anna resolves: “Myself, I want to write. Real, I want to write, and unreal.” The reader may feel as much relief as she does at the abandonment of her desultory efforts at children’s fantasy, and may hope that she begin instead to work the rich seam of comedy presented by Irish bourgeois hypocrisy, exemplified by the reaction of her (apparently decent, thoughtful) husband, Alex to her affair.
The middle section of Fox, Swallow Scarecrow, the narrative of her clandestine affair, contains much successful plotting, as with the device of a crucial call to Anna’s mobile phone. Few of the supporting cast are as entertaining as the Latvian cleaning lady, Ludmilla, who immediately sees through Anna’s subterfuge. In a particularly apt phrase, she is described as an “expert grunter”, and her grunts cause Anna more disquiet than the reaction of anyone else in the novel. It would have been good to see more of Ludmilla.
Ni Dhuibhne has used the device of parallel characters in her earlier bildungsroman, The Dancers Dancing, and here she again follows Tolstoy in contrasting the social round of the capital (sleek), with a supposedly more authentic life in the country (shaggy). The life (especially the love-life) of Leo, wistful idealistic Irish speaker and road safety advocate, contrasts and intersects with Anna’s. When first introduced, the concerned (and therefore uncool) Leo exemplifies Auden’s lines: “Oh silly and unhappy are the brave who tilt against the world’s enormous wrong.” But Ni Duibhne follows Tolstoy in giving her shaggy hero Leo, a love that brings him to robust engagement with everyday experience. He becomes less silly and much less unhappy. Unlike Levin, however, at the end of the book, Leo is affected by tragedy, as randomness intrudes, to produce a somewhat scrambled ending. Ni Dhuibhne’s intriguing title glances at organic forces that lie beneath and around both city and country. Unsuspected equally by sleek and shaggy, these forces abruptly jolt the lives of all the characters.
Ni Dhuibhne makes clever use of the plot of Anna Karenina by casting it in a very different emotional and aesthetic register. Just as Tolstoy was concerned to portray individual destinies as driven by forces operating in the society at a particular historic moment, so she offers much commentary on the Celtic Tiger milieu in which Anna’s romantic and sexual imbroglio occurs, but which has little influence on Leo. The novel is rich in social observation, which is carried off more effectively through the accumulation of well-judged details than through the author’s (sometimes too insistent) commentary.