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ISBN 0452281032 / 9780452281035 / 0-452-28103-2
› Find signed collectible books: 'The Mammy'
It seems like there's no end to Irish tales depicting unhappy, squalid childhoods in crowded, working-class flats. While Brendan O'Carroll's The Mammy maintains many elements of the traditional genre--the saintly, overworked mother, the Catholic family with an enormous posse of children and any number of abusive alcoholic fathers--it's a somewhat cheerier vision of Irish youth than we've come to expect. The mammy in question, one Agnes Browne, has enough spunk to look after her brood of seven, run a fruit stand at the local open market, gossip viciously with her best friend Marion, and still daydream about dancing with a famous singer.
This is in large part due to the fact that her husband, Redser, who falls squarely into the above-mentioned category, has died--thanks to a careless driver--just before the novel's opening pages. Our first glimpse of the pragmatic, lovable Agnes comes as she's waiting in the social services office on the afternoon of his death, determined not to lose a penny of her widow's benefits as a result of dilly-dallying. She doesn't even have the necessary death certificate yet, but that's not nearly enough to slow down Agnes Brown: "No, love, he's definitely dead. Definitely," she says to the clerk, then, turning to her friend for backup, "Isn't he, Marion?" Marion, made from the same tough stock, agrees solemnly: "Absolutely. I know him years, and I've never seen him look so bad. Dead, definitely dead!" The scene is emblematic: Agnes knows how to fight, and she isn't afraid to do it. Her deadpan humor becomes a hallmark.
As for her children, they get into the usual trouble--fights, girl problems, and the like. But there are also some charming, unexpected episodes in the book. For example, Agnes's oldest child meets a Jewish man and performs small tasks for him on the Sabbath, which eventually leads to greater goods. Among other things, Mark learns about the Jewish faith, new knowledge he accepts with bemusement and some of his mother's innocence and good humor. Upon hearing that the man doesn't celebrate Christmas, he exclaims: "Will yeh go on outta that! How can yeh not believe in something when it's real?"
The book is not without its share of tragedy, but Agnes takes it all with aplomb. She's clearly the glue that binds her pack of youngsters together: "The rule in the Browne family was: 'You hit one, you hit seven.' Since March twenty-ninth and Redser's demise, little had changed in the Browne house. If anything, the house was less tense." The Mammy is a slight book--it tells the simple, fairly conventional tale of a single Irish family--but it makes up for its gaps with humanity, in the same way Agnes Browne makes up for what she and her children lack. --Melanie Rehak [via]