Book Review: The Cloths of Heaven -- Geraldine Nesbitt
edited: Sunday, September 12, 2004
By SARA WEBB QUEST
Not "rated" by the Author.
Posted: Tuesday, December 03, 2002
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Suite101's Geraldine Nesbitt, novelist and topic editor of "The Writing Process -- from Idea to Bookshelf," has written a modern classic.
* * * *1/2 (of five) stars!
This novel is a first-person retelling by one Sheila McGann, a young woman who suffers from cerebral palsy. From pre-pubescence through early adulthood, Sheila records the tragic friendship with Maud Phelan that has changed her life. The story begins with Maud's mother Kitty parking their motor home on James Street, where Sheila, her mother and unassuming father live. Sheila’s “Mam” takes a liking to Kitty, who is everything she isn't -- carefree, sultry and full of attitude. Sheila and Mam become loyal visitors of the Phelans until the four women's lives mesh into one.
For Sheila living through Maud has rewards. Before Maud's appearance, Sheila was reliant on Mam, who has met every basic human need. Post Maud she is taken to breathtaking heights, evidenced in jaunts to the nearby Shannon River where Maud hauls Sheila out of her wheelchair to lay her on the grass. But there is something deeper going on. What Nesbitt initially and cleverly conceals is that Maud is as desperate for approval as Sheila. Nesbitt's vision of the ugliness Sheila must confront on a daily basis splendidly diverts reader attention away from Maud's inner chaos. Sheila's muscles lock, speech falters, mouth drools and handicap permits her from going to the bathroom solo. Nesbitt's realism is so profound readers empathize with Sheila's fear and self-loathing, viewing Maud as the healthful answer.
All the while, Maud is following in the careless footsteps of a promiscuous mother. She gives her body and a ration of soul to each of three men, as Sheila is realizing that to drink in Maud is to live in a shadow. Throughout, there are characters whose lives reverberate from the main ones. Michael Daly, a young American-influenced priest practicing a religion of which he is dubious, tutors Sheila in Maud’s absence, creating a protégé. Then there is Sheila's future husband Donal whom she meets at The Home, a boarding school for the handicapped, and whom Nesbitt uses as vehicle for Sheila's emerging self-awareness through the idea of equal love. And, there is Liam and Christy, two men Sheila and Maud meet while summering in Fanore with Mam and Kitty. Fanore and the men serve as carefree contrasts to the story's 1970s Northern Irish-conflict setting. The main irony is in Nesbitt's morally weak characters -- since they are the ones to fall. Strong-bodied Liam is self-consumed in his involvement with the IRA. His passion and haste pave the path for an early death. Maud, sexually gracing the bodies of men, winds up pregnant then worse.
At book's end Sheila, emerging from Maud's shadow, finds her own light. A final meeting with Michael Daly uncovers a surprising truth about Maud's death, for which Sheila has felt unrelenting need to investigate and chronicle, thus beginning her on a new career in journalism. How apt the amputation of Maud from her life leaves her stronger. Nesbitt uses a simple style to present an atypical heroine who is proof freedom rings from within. The book's one tragedy is that it hasn't achieved the fame it deserves.