Review: The Mammy

It’s multicultural reads week in readers advisory class, so I have chosen two very different backgrounds to read: Irish and Turkish. Oddly, I hadn’t really thought of Irish as being particularly multicultural, since it’s part of the UK, but Brendan O’Carroll’s The Mammy was on the list, so I went for it.

Fans of Frank McCourt will recognize the milieu of impoverished Irish families, though O’Carroll’s tale is set in the 1960s. The “Mammy” of the title is Agnes Browne, mother of seven who is newly widowed within the first few pages. With her dear friend Marion at her side, she goes to apply for benefits and then figure out what comes next. Life has not been kind to Agnes, with both a father and husband who beat her and a large family to care for, but Agnes is one of those indomitable women who can take what life throws at her. Whether those challenges are explaining changes of puberty to her oldest son, confronting a nun about the disciplinary tactic used on her daughter, or helping her best friend through a health scare, Agnes takes it all matter-of-factly.

Like McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, The Mammy certainly has its moments of pathos offset by droll humor. Some of the humor stems from malapropisms (Marion asks in a scandalous hush one day if, between the seven children, Agnes has ever had any “organisms” with her husband), but other humor is purely situational (like Agnes confronting the nun with the nearest blunt object she can find – a cucumber). The pace clips along fairly quickly as well, with very short chapters; at a grand total of 176 pages, the story can be devoured in one sitting.

This tale also has strong character appeal; in the foreword, O’Carroll dedicates the story to the strong women of his childhood home, and Agnes certainly is admirable homage. Readers will also note the time-old sibling dynamic of the children – they may bicker and squabble amongst themselves all they want, but no one else has the right to pick on another Browne. One literary choice I also particularly liked was the nicely developed friendship between Agnes and Marion, showing two women with a shared past who must each be there for the other during difficult times.

Readers interested in more of Agnes Browne can follow up with The Chisellers and The Granny to conclude the trilogy. The Mammy was also loosely translated into movie form in 1999, though judging by its synopsis, the “based on” part seems a bit of a stretch.

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