The title of Brian Moore’s sixth novel from 1968 could be a statement or a question, as his titular character battles with the notion of identity over the space of one day.
I Am Mary Dunne, is a touching portrait of a neurotic woman trying to figure out who she was and who she has become while feeling haunted by two deaths, one of which she feels responsible for.
The book opens as Mary Dunne is at the hairdressers. When asked her name, she draws a blank and for a short time, cannot remember who she is. She blames it on one of her ‘down tilts’. It is her time of the month and she has been left feeling shaky and emotional, but the introspection that follows suggests that Mary is having a much larger crisis than simply a bad period.
As the book describes the events of her day, the narrative is cut through with Mary’s thoughts on her life so far and what has brought her to where she is today.
It is little surprise that Mary takes a moment to remember her name. Born Mary Dunne in Canada, she is only thirty but already on her third marriage. Her first marriage to Jimmy Phelan was born of a need to escape her small-town life. Her second to ‘Hat’ Bell ended acrimoniously due to her affair with Terence, her current husband.
Thus far, she has been Mary Dunne, Mary Phelan, Mary Bell and now Mary Lavery. Add to that the fact that different people call her by different Christian names – mostly Mary, but sometimes Martha and on one occasion, even Maria.
Mary has come to feel that her entire identity is based around what other people want, or need her to be. Ironically, she is an actress – albeit one who doesn’t act very much anymore on stage, but seems to do a lot of pretending in her real life. Mary always feels that she is playing a part; with each husband she has had to act differently and with a lack of friends of her own, she feels that she is never truly herself.
I play an ingénue role, with special shadings demanded by each suitor. For Jimmy I had to be a tomboy; for Hat, I must look like a model; he admired elegance. Terence wants to see me as Irish: sulky, laughing, wild. And me, how do I see me, who is that me I create in mirrors, the dressing-table me, the self I cannot put a name to in the Golden Door Beauty Salon?
Mary defines her sense of self solely by how others see her and is starting to worry that this definition of herself as merely the half of a bigger whole has left a void in her life that she will remain unable to fill.
Perhaps part of my uncertainty about who I am these days is because, living with Terence, I am introduced to everybody as Mrs. Terence Lavery. ‘You mean the Terence Lavery, the British playwright, that one?’ Yes, that one. When Terence and I meet new people, eyes go to him. If I start talking to a stranger at a party and Terence comes up, I find I may as well forget whatever it was I was saying. Oh, I suppose men still look at me, but with this difference. When they hear who I am they at once ask if Terence is with me and what he’s doing these days. Then we talk about Terence.
Her guilt over the end of her relationship with Hat also comes from the feeling that throughout their relationship she was merely playing the part that he wanted her to be. She is haunted by Hat’s death, for which she feels responsible and this is compounded by the fact that everyone else feels she is responsible for his death too. For Mary, there is no way out.
I seem condemned to relive those few days, to go over and over them in my mind so that now, with time and repetition, those events are a play of which I remember every line, stage direction, entrance and exit
Can Mary find a path back to her true self? Does she need to admit to her responsibility for Hat’s death, and with that, come to terms with the death of her own father, who passed in a hotel room in the arms of his mistress? Is this where her inability to commit to a relationship comes from?
There is a lot of emotional questioning in I Am Mary Dunne and Moore inhabits the female voice with sensitivity and clarity. His handling of Mary’s menstruation and the emotional turmoil that she finds herself in could have been a misstep, but is presented in a subtle and believable manner.
The internal monologue gives the novel a strength and singlemindedness, but there is little plot here for readers to get their teeth into, focusing instead on character and emotion.
Mary has several encounters throughout the day, all with people pretending to be other than they are. A strange man comes to view her apartment with a wish to sublet it, but his intentions are not what they seem. Her old friend Janice from Montreal has asked to meet Mary for lunch, but her trip to New York is a front for something other than a friendly catch-up. Mary receives a mysterious note from an L.O. Macduff requesting she meet for drinks and this encounter again is a subterfuge that throws up more conflicted feelings from the past.
Some of these supporting characters are thinly drawn, which, given the emphasis on Mary and Mary alone, is probably to be expected.
However, Brian Moore is regularly celebrated for his portrayal of complex women and I Am Mary Dunne cements that reputation. Mary is not always likeable – she can be selfish and cold and her treatment of Hat; the other men in her life and even her own mother, suggest a woman who is ambivalent to commitment. This novel may lack the depth of The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, but I Am Mary Dunne remains a sympathetic and vivid portrayal of a woman who is ultimately lost, a woman for whom memory may prove the only path back to her true self.
‘It was the funny thing about my name’, I said. ‘I mean, really. Who am I anymore? All these names, who am I?’…
I am no longer Mary Dunne, or Mary Phelan, or Mary Bell, or even Mary Lavery. I am a changeling who has changed too often and there are moments when I cannot find my way back.
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About the Author:
Brian Moore (1921–1999) was born into a large, devoutly Catholic family in Belfast, Northern Ireland. His father was a surgeon and lecturer, and his mother had been a nurse. Moore left Ireland during World War II and in 1948 moved to Canada, where he worked for the Montreal Gazette, married his first wife, and began to write potboilers under various pen names, as he would continue to do throughout the 1950s.
The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955), said to have been rejected by a dozen publishers, was the first book Moore published under his own name, and it was followed by nineteen subsequent novels written in a broad range of modes and styles, from the realistic to the historical to the quasi-fantastical, including The Luck of Ginger Coffey, An Answer from Limbo, The Emperor of Ice-Cream, I Am Mary Dunne, Catholics, Black Robe, and The Statement. Three novels—Lies of Silence, Color of Blood, and The Magician’s Wife—were short-listed for the Booker Prize, and The Great Victorian Collection won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.
After adapting The Luck of Ginger Coffey for film in 1964, Moore moved to California to work on the script for Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain. He remained in Malibu for the rest of his life, remarrying there and teaching at UCLA for some fifteen years. Shortly before his death in 1999, Moore wrote,
There are those stateless wanderers who, finding the larger world into which they have stumbled vast, varied and exciting, become confused in their loyalties and lose their sense of home. I am one of those wanderers.
Brian Moore’s Obituary in The Guardian, 1999
In January this year, on the twentieth anniversary of his death, the Irish Times featured this fascinating previously unpublished interview with Brian Moore.
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