He Used to be Me by Anne Walsh Donnelly
Matt, known as ‘Daft Matt’, is a man whose behaviour is a cause of derision in a west of Ireland town (Castlebar). The story is related as first-person narrative, and throughout we are made aware that Matt holds conversations with ‘cága’ (jackdaws), as he attempts to come to terms with the events of his life leading up to our introduction to him.
The story is constructed around four time periods in Matt’s life. The ‘now’ section is very much an exposition, in which Matt explains to the reader how he got to be where is now. There is a ‘then’ section corresponding to his young life, in which he describes traumatic events and dysfunctional relationships (particularly with his father). These give us an insight into the nature of the man and allow us to understand the nature of his behaviour as his life unfolds. There then follows an ‘after then before now’ section. This coincides with a period of his life where he goes out to explore the world, meets his wife, comes home and has a family. It is also where the accident that changes the course of his life takes place. The gradual disintegration of his home life is painfully rendered here, all the more so because Matt is fully aware of it but is powerless to do anything about it. The section ends with his incarceration and institutionalisation. The final section, ‘now again’, takes us back to the present, in which Matt paints us a picture of his long-term ‘house that I’m supposed to call home’. The sense of hopelessness is strongly felt throughout, as Matt guides us through the almost pointless routines of his days and weeks. Finally, as he takes us through scenes that reek of goodbyes (a late night trek across the mountain to his deserted home, a touching meeting in Dublin with his daughter), we come to understand that in order to silence the sounds of the cága, he must do the inevitable.
There is much to admire in He Used To Be Me. Although a prose novella, the language borrows heavily from poetry. It also follows a pattern of observation that seems to me to be quite childlike, in that he often describes scenes and situations in a way that is both vivid and/or immediate, and at the same time profound and/or insightful. Just as an example, ‘Harriet brought a cake that she got in a shop, I knew that ‘cos the mushy part in the centre didn’t taste like the cream that comes from cow’s milk.’ Very insightful – and very viscerally real (for those of us who has ever tasted the cream in a homemade cake made from cow’s milk and then tasted its processed replica from a supermarket chain). This type of observation on Matt’s part adds greatly to the force and effectiveness of the story as it unravels. I found it allowed me to engage more fully with Matt’s thought processes and to understand better his view of the world.
Throughout the text, the author uses wonderfully novel techniques to arrange words in an almost graphic way – one good example is the ‘float in the air’ sentence, in which the words themselves appear to float down the page, almost like feathers being dropped from a height. In keeping with my observation above about the beautiful child-like quality of the story, this reminded me a little of a children’s picture book, in which there may, for example, be a large colourful painting describing a scene from the story, and a sentence or two arranged in a pattern that in some way reinforces the action in that scene. These novel word-constructions and configurations added an almost visual element to the story that I found exciting and effective.
Reading into Matt as I went along, I was reminded of King Sweeny in Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds. I think it may have had something to do with the references to the Fianna, Oisin, Fionn Mac Cumhaill, Tír na nÓg etc. that kept the comparison coming back to my mind. Whenever Matt was described trekking across the mountain in the dark or throwing himself into the whitethorn bushes in the fort, I could see Mad Sweeny jumping from tree to tree.
The story is beautifully and imaginatively told, using language that is poetic and profound, yet is instantly accessible. It is deeply sad, but strangely life-affirming at the same time, I found. To the world in general, Matt is simply another quirky character we see on street corners or when we’re out-and-about and never give a second thought to, other than to maybe shake our heads in (smug?) mystification, or worse. The difference though, is that we now know all about Matt’s life, his interior world, his cága-demons, and as a result, I believe, we are forced to think about ourselves when faced with ‘erratic’ or ‘odd’ behaviour in the course of our everyday experience.
In conclusion, I leave the last word to Matt’s daughter, when Matt asks her –
‘Am I scary now?’
– and to which she replies –
‘God, no, Daddy, I suspect you never were.’
(c) Kevin Powderly
Order your copy of He Used to be Me online here.