Georgina Bruce on a new novella by Tracy Fahey
I’m a menopausal woman, and if there’s one thing that pisses me off, it’s absolutely bloody everything. So when I was given a review copy of They Shut Me Up (PS Publishing, 2023), a novella about a menopausal woman from acclaimed Irish writer Tracy Fahey, I was more than willing to hate it. After all, there are plenty of menopause grifters around at the moment, hawking their tomes about bloated midriffs and dried up vaginas, and I have zero desire to read more books telling me that I need a squirt of HRT up my foof every time I have a bad thought.
So I was happily surprised (and honestly, surprised to be happy, given my appallingly meagre oestrogen reserves) to discover in Fahey’s novella a story that does actual justice to the experience of menopause. A story that makes you want to cry happy tears and punch the air because finally someone has managed to write about this part of a woman’s life with both deep respect and wise emotional clarity.
The world would be a better place if we understood that the menopause is to a woman what a full moon is to a werewolf. It torments and transforms her until she breaks free from the cages she’s built around herself and rampages into the night-time forest of her years. (And it also gives her a lot more unwanted hair to deal with.) Fahey’s stunning novella goes a long way towards producing, if not that precise understanding, at least a better understanding of this revolutionary time in a woman’s life.
Fahey’s protagonist, the seemingly watery and ineffectual librarian Annie McMahon, finds herself menopausally haunted by a scathing voice imploring her to brutally destroy her enemies. (We’ve all been there, babe.) At first, Annie gaslights herself into thinking she’s going mad, but slowly she comes to embrace the ghost and allow the transformation that it invites.
When Annie gets assigned to a project about misrepresented Irish women, she identifies the voice as belonging to Màire Rua – Red Mary (‘Her hair a waterfall of blood’) – a much-maligned figure of Ireland’s past, known for her heartless atrocities and cold-blooded murders. Annie sets about telling this story from a new point of view – Màire Rua’s own.
The novella’s meta-fictional devices are deployed so naturally and seamlessly that we are slyly inveigled into Annie’s inner world without ever losing our grip on reality. Rather than using the popular device of taking the reader out of the moment in order to present Màire Rua’s history by means of a dual perspective, Fahey adopts a more subtle and sophisticated approach. By involving the reader ever more deeply in Annie’s point of view, she creates the seemingly effortless effect of also immersing you into the historical perspective of Màire Rua. This creates a hugely entertaining and beguiling atmosphere, and moreover, makes the story totally convincing, so by the time we get to the really wild stuff of the plot, we are completely invested and all disbelief is thoroughly suspended.
Often this kind of fiction will alienate a reader by being disjointed or seeming artificial, but Fahey’s storytelling technique ensures that there is never a moment of boredom or puzzlement. She is a highly authoritative writer who is perfectly effective in keeping you turning the pages. This is a book that can and should be read in one sitting.
It’s sometimes the case that books about historical injustices meted out to women are terribly bleak, angry or depressing. In this case, by assigning most of the anger to Màire Rua, who deserves to feel it, Fahey cleverly allows space for a sense of wonder and intrigue. The reader is first and foremost being told a ghost story, and it is a compelling and entertaining one at that. Only when we are in too deep to resist do we realise that we are also being told a needful truth. But there is no propaganda or Twitter-style posturing in this book. It’s human and complex, never reductive or political.
Fahey’s engagement with the feminist project of retelling women’s history feels significantly new and important. This is not diving into history and projecting our modern identity concerns onto past figures. This feels more like an excavation; as the title suggests, it’s an opening up of what’s been buried, a telling of what’s been silenced. And it’s notable that Fahey consistently puts the reader’s experience first, serving the story before any ideology or philosophy.
Another of the joys of this novella is the precise, contemporary language. Fahey writes beautiful, economical sentences that pull you through the story without ever drawing unnecessary attention to themselves. Her writing is transparent, catchy and full of humour.
At the very end of the book is a poem. Normally this would really piss me off, because, as everyone secretly agrees, all poetry is terrible, self-indulgent pish. But the poem here is actually incredibly moving, arriving as the culmination and reward of both Annie’s and the reader’s journey through the story. It’s actually a bit annoying to admit that Tracy Fahey is so bloody good at writing, she even made me like a poem.
It’s very difficult to write about books that you love, especially when you’re a menopausal hag who needs a bottle of wine, a family-sized bar of Dairy Milk, and an orgasm to actually feel anything resembling joy. But this novella broke down my defences.
Kafka famously wrote that a book must be an axe to break the frozen sea within. By that metric, Fahey has written a gargantuan ice-breaking ship of a book. Like Angela Carter before her, Tracy Fahey has done something fundamentally new and necessary with old and misunderstood stories. If there’s any justice in the world, she’ll be recognised, applauded, and awarded for her incredible contribution, not only to feminist fiction, but to fiction in general. Highly, highly recommended. ∎
Georgina Bruce is a writer. Her debut novella Honeybones is available from TTA Press; This House of Wounds, her debut short story collection, can be purchased from Undertow Publications; and her new collection House on the Moon is available from Black Shuck Books. Read more of her words at her Substack.
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