Charming Billy was the last book I read, as 2015 came to a close and a fitting end it was, as it opens at the funeral and wake of a man called Billy, a man who over-comforted himself with drink, for reasons that everyone present was happy to speculate on, most of them coming to the conclusion , that he’d never got over the fiancée that returned to Ireland with his ring and a promise to join him soon.
Close friends and family come together to mourn and remember Billy, this man of Irish descent who fell for Eva one summer, who promised himself to her and sent her the money he’d borrowed from his new boss, so she could return to him after she went back to Ireland.
It had been a short romance, but one that everyone present at his wake had an opinion on, yet no one appeared to have known the full truth of what really transpired. This becomes even more clear as the novel progresses towards the memory of Billy’s trip to Ireland about 30 years later, truth confronting him in a way grief could not.
The novel unfolds and weaves like threads in a tapestry, as characters share their understanding of Billy, their memories of his charm and inclinations and what they knew about the short-lived romance with the Irish girl Eva.
They debate whether Billy’s demise and descent into alcoholism was part of who he was or the consequence of the heartbreak he had endured over the years, despite his marriage to Maeve, the widow, like wallpaper adorning the kitchen, witnesses all, but sits quietly in the background of this narrative.
“There was tremendous affection in Billy’s eyes, or at least they held a tremendous offer of affection, a tremendous willingness to find whomever he was talking to bright and witty and better than most.”
Slowly it creates a picture of a life and all lives, how they are formed, changed, steered by certain events, fractured by grief, sustained by community, vulnerable to and comforted by addiction, driven by faith, seduced by deception.
‘In the arc of an unremarkable life, a life whose triumphs are small and personal, whose trials are ordinary enough, as tempered in their pain as in their resolution of pain, the claim of exclusivity in love requires both a certain kind of courage and a good dose of delusion.’
Much of the novel is narrated by the daughter of Dennis, Billy’s cousin. Dennis was close to Billy, they were together when that summer when they met the two girls Mary and Eva, at Dennis’s mother and stepmother’s holiday home, a place Billy would never return to, perhaps due to those memories, and a location that provides something of a twist near the end.
A nostalgic tale, imbued with sadness, post war expectations and a new world Irish charm, it carries a sense of stepping back in time, of being on the threshold of a new modern era, Billy, one of the last links to a bygone era.
It read like a tapestry, one story viewed through various perspectives, so we go over events again and again, as seen by numerous characters, like colourful threads in a tableau.
I picked this book up from the library after it had been highly recommended to me, I have another of her books on the shelf Someone, a 1920’s Irish-American coming-of-age portrait of a woman’s life through childhood, adolescence, motherhood and old age.
Have you read any of Alice McDermott’s work?