Book review: “But Come Ye Back” by Beth Lordan Previous item Book review: “Cat Chaser”... Next item Book review: “The Art of...

Book review: “But Come Ye Back” by Beth Lordan

When Mary Curtin, a Boston nanny in the late 1950s, gets the telegram MOTHER DYING, she thinks, I’d be too late.

She’ll never admit that she doesn’t know what she’d have done next if her employer hadn’t come into the corridor then and asked what was wrong.

But she doesn’t have to know that, because Mrs. Cunningham does come into the corridor, and so Mary does the right things.

What Mary does is to take her savings and buy a plane ticket back to Ireland, and take an early morning bus to Galway and start her three-mile walk to the family farm and cross paths with a man who says, “Sorry for your trouble,” so she knows she is too late. 

And, although she’s been sending money regularly back home, Mary doesn’t need the bitterness of her older sister Roisin “to make her feel the tug of the halter of shame at the nape of her neck.”

Mary got away to America, escaped. Roisin was the one left behind with the parents.  Now, though, Mary is about to suffer “tribal intimate revenge” and begin “her penance for the sins of abandonment, hope, desire.”

Mary’s mortally tired, thirty hours since she slept.  She kisses her sister and turns to kiss her father, who stands beside the fire.  It’s good you’ve come, he says, with Roisin off to Galway City now.

Off? Mary says.

Oh, Roisin says, with the breath of a laugh, I didn’t write it to you but Michael Carey and I are being married, she says.  In Christmas week.

Mary stares, Roisin grins, Da folds his arms and snorts.  Did you think you were away? he says.

For just that one moment, Mary believes they have killed her, but in the next moment she is simply lost, unhappy, and at home.

Home

Home is where Mary is stuck and where she’ll stay for three years — because someone has to take care of Da.  Until, violent and unreasonable in his old age, Da is taken away on the same day that the young man from back in Boston, Lyle Sullivan, with whom Mary has been corresponding wheels clumsily up on a bicycle to the farmhouse.

But Come Ye Back, Beth Lordan’s richly observed and deeply felt 2004 novel in stories, is an account of the move Mary and Lyle make to Ireland decades later, after Lyle’s retirement from an accounting job with a hardware firm — a move into their own home in Galway, near where Roisin and Michael and some of their children have settled.

With their two adult sons leading their own distant, independent and somewhat shaky lives, there was nothing holding Mary and Lyle in the suburbs of Cleveland.

This move is a new start for the couple.  And it is a new home. 

And, yet, they are living in the same home — the same couple-ship, the same love with all its aches and irritations and small joys — where they’ve been living since the day Lyle rode up on his rickety bike.

“Could see in her mind”

Home was a prison for Mary on that return home long ago.  This time, Mary and Lyle bring their home with them, from one continent to another — the same home.

But Come Ye Back is the story of the home that Mary and Lyle have made with each other, as seen from the perspective of its later years.  In the novel’s opening story, Mary is 60 and Lyle, 65.

The home they have built together, like any couple’s home, any couple’s love, is far from perfect.  Like an actual building, there are parts of their home that are less beautiful, parts that are very comfortable, parts in need of minor repairs.

Lyle can be a curmudgeon; Mary, too accommodating or too fussy.  Each fantasizes about someone else with whom a different, maybe more interesting, maybe better home could be fashioned, but neither acts on those fantasies.

But, in this imperfect home they have created, even the imperfections are part of its hominess, such as, in the opening story, they are getting on each other’s nerves:

She turned from him, an old habit of giving him privacy to recover from his anger, but she could see in her mind every gesture he’d make — he’d smooth his hair with both hands and then pat his palms twice against his thighs as if checking his pockets, and then he’d lift his chin and, with his right hand, smooth his throat in two quick passes.

Such is the way a home — a marriage — of 35 years is, each partner knowing the other so closely, each partner employing long-successful strategies for getting through rough moments.

“Somewhat to his surprise”

Lordan has a special talent for capturing such subtle elements of the dance that two partners in a marriage take part in.

And she has a talent for displaying the inner life of individuals. Yes, Lyle is somewhat crotchety, and Lordan offers a paragraph about his disdain for Ireland:

He didn’t love the talk, and he didn’t love the Irish people, who always stood too close and talked too fast, and he had trouble, still, understanding what they said.  He had frightened and embarrassed himself trying to drive on the wrong side of the road with the steering wheel on the wrong side of the car, and had given it up.  He disliked the weight of pound coins in his pocket, and he didn’t care for Guinness.

Toted up like that, Lyle’s dislikes make him seem Scrooge-like, and it’s clear that disliking things is part of his personality.  Yet, not the full story, not at all, as Lordan’s next paragraph shows:

And, yet, somewhat to his surprise, he liked a lot about Ireland.  He liked keeping the small garden behind their house, the way things simply grew and thrived in the steady, cool dampness. He liked the stone walls that surrounded every yard and separated one person’s place from another’s.  He liked the little coal-burning fireplace in the sitting room.  After forty years as an accountant for a hardware chain, he liked living in a place where people went for walks, and he liked going for walks.  He liked the dog, a longhaired dachshund, a pretty, girlish little thing.  He liked the opinionated newspapers, and he liked being a foreigner.

This second list shows, of course, that Lyle had a lot of likes, residing alongside his dislikes. But it also shows him to be someone who thinks in lists like that.

Mary, by contrast, is much more in the moment, in the flow of the day and the years and the life of their home, their coupleness.

“And never would again”

There is an elegiac quality to But Come Ye Back — the title comes from the lyrics for the Irish song Danny Boy, a song about death and love — and all of the novel’s eight stories have to do with dying.  Indeed, the opening story is titled “Cemetery Sunday.”

The home Mary and Lyle have built together has long endured.  This move to Ireland is a new start, but it’s happening because their old life in America was coming to an end with Lyle’s retirement. 

The sense that these are Mary and Lyle’s final years pervades the novel, but not oppressively.  Rather, Lordan conveys the feelings and experiences of their final years with great subtlety.

Such as when, during a rare low tide, Mary has walked out to the abandoned lighthouse on Mutton Island, a place that will soon be transformed into a sewage-treatment plant.  And, now, Mary has “two miles of cold, wet walking between herself and her house.” 

But she’d come here, and never would again, so she turned and went through the low, dark rooms of the dead lighthouse keeper’s house, out into a small yard, and into the lighthouse.  The steps were as she faintly remembered, the whitewash flaking from worn stone in a spiral, and tight enough near the top that if a girl hadn’t backed up the steps to let her come, she might have changed her mind and gone down.

“The crying baby”

Continency is a great part of Mary and Lyle’s story.  Here, it is simply the decision of a girl to back up to let Mary get to the top.

When that telegram arrived so many years ago, it was the happenstance of the employer walking in and seeing Mary distressed.

Contingency, yes.  And also, another part of their story, how the past is always alive in the present, as when Mary is sick with a cold and sitting up in the middle of the night:

The wall that joins the two houses is so thick that sounds rarely pass through, but tonight Mary Sullivan hears the crying of a baby on the other side.  It is the ordinary fretful crying of a baby waking in the night, familiar still to Mary although her own children are men now.  If they cry now in the night, it is not for her, or no longer hers to comfort, and they are far away, Kevin and Jimmy, an ocean away, from where she sits, wrapped in a blanket against the chills that come and go, in the rocking chair in the guest room she keeps for her sons’ visits, and waits for someone to come and comfort the crying child.

But Come Ye Back is a novel of the home two people make and all the ways they fit and don’t fit together and how they deal with the randomness of living and how their present is saturated with the past and rooted in an expectation of the next day and the next and the next.

It is a book of sorrows that celebrates love, a book of love that endures sorrows.

Patrick T. Reardon

11.15.21

This is the second time I’ve read But Come Ye Back and the second time I’ve reviewed it. You can find my 2013 review here.

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