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A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa review – incandescent treasures

·2 min read

The 18th-century Irish poem Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire is a “keen” written by Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, a woman mourning her husband and raging at his murder. Doireann Ní Ghríofa first encountered it as a schoolgirl with a gift for daydreaming. By the time she found her way back to it, she was married and midway through a decade during which she was either pregnant, breastfeeding or both, her days filled with the “drudge work” of raising four small children. In snatched moments of solitude – invariably accompanied by a whirring breast pump – she would study her tatty photocopy of the poem, “inviting the voice of another woman to haunt my throat a while”.

This incandescent, uncategorisable prose debut is the result of her invocation. It’s a book that is many things – a reimagining of an 18th-century life that combines scholarship with imaginative verve; an account of obsession and a meditation on the limits of biography; a memoir of post-feminist motherhood. It also features Ní Ghríofa’s own stirring translation of Eibhlín Dubh’s lament.

What A Ghost in the Throat is not, however, is straightforward. It may have been written in borrowed pockets of time between supper and bed – indeed, it may only exist because Ní Ghríofa’s husband insisted on getting a vasectomy – but she is unabashed about the satisfaction she finds in homemaking and housework. “In such erasure, for me, lies joy,” she confides about ticking items off a diurnal list comprised of words such as “mop” and “laundry”.

The book begins with words that will become its refrain: 'This is a female text'

She’s less confident when it comes to delving into archives. “I am merely a woman who loves this poem,” she says. But she also happens to be a published poet, and when it comes to prose, is incapable of delivering a dud sentence. This is a text that glints with treasures, from ruminations on the connections between “stanza” and the Italian word for room, to descriptions of “a shiver-bright day” and the “buttery hellos” of nodding daffodils.

The book begins with words that will become its refrain: “This is a female text.” In entwining her own existence with the story of a lauded poem and its overlooked author, she busts open the idea of the female text to encompass not merely self-sacrifice and scars, but also merriment, desire, and fierce, sustaining curiosity.

A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa is published by Tramp Press (£8.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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