Review of As Long As It Takes by Maria C. McCarthy
As Long As It Takes
by Maria C. McCarthy
Cultured Llama, 2014
Reviewed by Pauline Masurel
“It’s a woman’s life. What else will you do if you don’t have children?”
The title story of this collection begins with the dust settling after a hearth has been broken. It’s a fitting use of imagery for many of the uprooted women who people these stories.
‘This is as far as we go, unless you want to go back where you came from.’ The driver tipped his cap to the back of his head. There was a dent across his forehead, the skin whiter above than below. ‘No, I don’t want to go back,’ I said, but made no move to rise.
Joan’s dilemma in As Long As It Takes is similar to Shirley Valentine’s, except that in Limerick there’s no sunshine and no lover when she runs away. Whichever way she looks there is only mourning.
These stories are set in a world where such comings and goings are taken for granted. As the child narrator in A Tea Party, explains,
Uncle Michael was funny when he first came over – that’s what they call it when someone comes on the boat from Ireland: ‘coming over’. He came back with us when we’d been ‘home’ on holiday – that’s what Mum calls it, going home.
Motherhood is also a strong presence in Maria McCarthy’s stories. There are mothers who bear babies, women who can’t and daughters who are taken by the Church and therefore don’t. Although there’s a much sorrowfulness throughout this collection, there are also sometimes unexpected wry laughs.
That’s why babies have to be baptised to get rid of Original Sin. The priest washes it off with holy water. It’s like washing poo off the nappies, except you can’t put a baby in the washing machine, so the priest has to do it.
One of my favourite stories is Self Help, which keenly-observes the inter-generational chasm of values between a mother and daughter and the difficulty of finding time for something so simple as a real conversation.
Although the rhythms of speech and family mores in this book are rooted in an Irish background, most of the stories are actually set in England. There is also a strong sense of period in many which is very recognisable to me from my own 60s/70s Home Counties childhood. A casual reference such as ‘when Mum gets the Maxwell House out of the cupboard’ or ‘Mellow Birds’ took me back to an era when a powdery brown substance in a jar was coffee, a sandwich was a ‘meat paste triangle’ and cake was Battenburg or a fondant fancy.
It was a time when women had ‘bosoms’ or ‘boobs’ and sometimes got ‘trouble downstairs’. Girls had pogo sticks, listened to David Cassidy, read Jackie magazine, carried Chelsea Girl bags and wore gabardine macs with a blue-edged hankie in the pocket that had forget-me-nots embroidered in one corner. Boys wore nylon underpants, Ben Sherman shirts and carried ‘a packet of three’. The blood they shed was washed away in Cold Salt Water and Saxa salt. This is also the era of the IRA’s Guildford pub bombings and there is a reminder that being an Irish immigrant in the 1970s was not necessarily regarded by English neighbours as a neutral act.
These stories feature a cast of characters from an extended family which overlap to form a collage of lives that relate to each other while every story works individually as a distinct whole. They shine a light into the commonplace of families and friends, but also the more extraordinary corners of human experience, such as a homeless man who acts as a catalyst for Love in the story of the same name. And in More Katherine Than Audrey, a story about Noreen, who was confined in a mental hospital for being a typhoid carrier.
In other stories, it is the objects featured in them which act as totems for all sorts of emotions. A mirror, a christening gown, a comb, a child’s tea-set or a set of Russian dolls: these things can be enough to set off a whole story. In fact, As Long as it Takes is a bit like a nest of Russian dolls, with one woman packed inside another woman, each helping to contain or release or the other.
Read a story from this collection at Writers Hub
About the author: Maria C. McCarthy was born in Surrey, raised by Irish parents, and now lives in Kent. Her Irish heritage features strongly in her writing, including columns (as Maria Bradley) for Radio 4’s Home Truths . Her first poetry collection, Strange Fruits, was published in 2011.
About the reviewer: Pauline Masurel is a gardener and short fiction enthusiast who grew up in Surrey but emigrated to the West Country.