Noelle McCarthy: It was neither the quality nor the mixture of alcohol that was at fault - it was the quantity.

The year’s book, described in the year’s best review

While reading Noelle McCarthy’s memoir Grand, I kept thinking of the first part of that famous Oscar Wilde quote, “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy.”

Is it inevitable? Sometimes. Even if you had never heard of Noelle and her past and rather public problems with alcohol, you would sense the monster waiting for her on the first page. “Mammy was a werewolf, it only took one sip of drink to change her,” she writes.

We learn that Carol, her mother, is dying in the present, in hospital in Cork, Ireland, and there are conversations with doctors, with funeral directors. And then we go back, back to the start, with Noelle so small she’s just learning to tell time, and there’s brown carpet, and a smashed Carling bottle, and a Catholic priest. From there we get chaotic fragments of memory – there are pubs, a rabbit, taxi drivers, ‘messages’ and a funeral parlour: “A lot of my childhood memories are like this, flashes that go off in my head sometimes, that come back to me with a force that knocks the breath out my chest.” Images rise out of the murk and settle back, and the chaotic feeling is amplified by the run-on sentences, as if they are coming too quickly even for a full stop, when a comma will do to get you to the next thought.  

What emerges crystal clear from the gloom of those early years is Mammy and her tangle with alcohol. If this were a novel she would be the antagonist – and a richly drawn, complex, contradictory one at that. But this is where the skill of Noelle McCarthy lies and it becomes clearer as the book progresses – she creates characters of real people and they leap off the page. Her dialogue is vivid, vicious, worthy of the best television drama. She can hook a phrase (her teacher: “could you open the window there, tis very close”) or physical characteristic (her plumber father’s “big hairy paws” with callused thumb pads from unblocking u-bends) or a universal truth (brother Robert has “that freshly washed-and-shaved air of purpose that marks all the young men in Cork when there’s a long night in front of them”) or a personality quirk of any number of charismatic incidentals, and make them sing and dance on the page. Towards the end of the book, she writes, “I am still taking notes – here in New Zealand, [the family] are all characters in my story.”

You feel like you’re witnessing a work in progress – or at least a working out in progress. Many memoirs are probably just that – a puzzle of bones to arrange to read for signs, to make sense of a life, of any number of relationships that make up that life. It makes me think of that other memoir – Charlotte Grimshaw’s The Mirror Book. You get the sense of the writer getting to the end having laid it all out for examination, finding herself in a different place from when she started. 

If this were a novel it would be many things – a coming of age tale, a family story, a Gothic horror

What works its way to the top is the wrestle with that monster, for both Carol and Noelle, but most of all the patterns that repeat themselves in family; the slow horror of a daughter falling into the inevitable – becoming her mother’s daughter – and her long walk back from the brink, to escape the monster, if not to slay it.  

If this were a novel it would be many things – a coming of age tale, a family story, a Gothic horror. For there are many Gothic tropes – doppelgängers, mad women in not-quite attics, demons in the mirror. Early on we learn of Noelle’s love for the novel Dracula, and if Carol’s personal alcoholic monster is a werewolf, then Noelle’s is surely a vampire (later she alludes to writing and abandoning a vampire novel). There’s a scene when Noelle is a teenager, lying in bed in her pyjamas with the window open, waiting for Dracula to come and take her. The metaphor is so apt it is painful. Dracula doesn’t come in the flesh (spoiler), but look out – here he comes in the form of a drink, cider to be precise. The first time, puking in a field with her friends, feeling “the hot splash on the grass and on my runners”. Then: “We ran down the field… windmilling our arms in the moth-busy twilight, drunk out of our minds and never more child-like”. Lest anyone thinks it’s a peculiarly Irish (though uniquely lyrical) vignette think again: binge drinking culture was also alive and well for New Zealand teens, and similar scenes were playing out on the other side of the world.

There are other familiar cultural touchstones: first love, first sex, touching up on couches and in the front seats of cars. University is a flurry of pubs, clubs, boyfriends, glittery eye-shadow, raver hair bunches, adidas jackets and Carhartt baggies. This was Cork in the 90s – “a young person’s city, with club nights and DJs” – but it could just as easily be a scene straight out of the pages of Pavement.

There are consequences to the fledgling alcoholism. Bruises unaccounted for. Unremembered flirtations. Getting combative with her boyfriend’s boss, and not caring, raging in fact: “I’m full of dumb fury… He deserved it. I hate his stupid bar full of posers. I’m sick of this stupid city.” Her boyfriend: “You’re so angry, Noelle. People don’t deserve it.”

What is she railing against? It’s not hard to see.

The shame, oh, the shame. It drips from almost every page. The house is claustrophobic, and always, Mammy’s drinking. She comes to blows with her eldest daughter. Noelle pours salt in her mother’s beer, making her retch over the sink (“You bad-minded bitch, what did you do to me?”); pours her vodka away, fights her, scratches her, tries to physically restrain her from attending a meet and greet at school, drunk. It’s horrible to read.

The shame of unwanted pregnancies, of periods (tampons are “only for women who are married already” says Carol), of asking a doctor for the morning after pill (for a country that treats single mothers so badly it’s amazing how scornful they are of contraception). And always, of a mother consumed by drink. When Carol goes unbidden with “a few drinks in her” to talk to Noelle’s first boyfriend’s mother, about whether or not the couple are having sex, Noelle’s “vision swims: everything turns into circles and squares.” The crushing shame of it.

Most heart-breakingly of all, the tragedy of a grandmother committing suicide, and the effect on her father: “In some strange way I am ashamed of him – ashamed it has happened, ashamed for him that he couldn’t stop it.” Yes, she needs to get away alright.

And so, to Auckland, which comes alive in the book. I watch her tread uncomfortably familiar ground that I trod a decade before. I too worked in hospo and roamed the city after midnight in end-of-shift packs, even at Prego (though I lasted one night only); I too worked at 95bFM, where I hosted a Sunday morning arts show hungover on three hours sleep; I too used the media junket circuit as my social life, an endless round of free drinks and the openings of envelopes, and behaving in ways I am certainly not proud of. But my stomach didn’t have the stamina for that kind of drinking, thank god.

“I’m 26 years old,” she writes, “and the main thing about me at this point is that I will say yes to anything… I’m on the invite list for a lot of stuff that happens in Auckland… I pose whenever I’m asked, at fashion shows, lunches, gigs, launches.”

Her star is on the rise at bFM, and elsewhere, and those Auckland glam years are juxtaposed with visits home to Ireland. From a big fish in a little pond to familiar home life, with congealing chops on a dirty cooker, and a pall of smoke and all-too-familiar smells permeating. She can count on her family to bring her down to size: “A stylist? Fuck off, Noelle,” says her brother Robert.

At the heart of this book is a revelation about lines of women in families, and trauma, and how it has the potential to repeat

Despite the damage Noelle has seen it wreak on her mother and her homelife, alcohol “wakes me up to all the things I need to do urgently. To smoke, and read, and write, and listen to music; to cry, and yearn hard for love, real love and understanding, for thrills, adventure, transcendence.”  It also offers “a quietness in my head, a bit of fucking comfort.” She writes of the “magical sweet spot” of being drunk – serene, loose and easy.

But the consequences of the life she is leading are disastrous. You need to read the book to see all the reasons why – it’s not for a reviewer to pick over the choicest cuts. Her life becomes more chaotic on the page than ever, and ends with rock-bottom, a plagiarism scandal, a public shaming in the gossip pages. More shame. A revelation and a lifeline: “At the back of my head a bell has started ringing. ‘Normal people don’t drink like this,’ a little voice says to me.”


At the heart of this book is a revelation about lines of women in families, and trauma, and how it has the potential to repeat. In fiction, in myth, we’d say we are doomed to repeat it.

But while starting her recovery and attending AA, Noelle revisits Dracula and has an epiphany: “It is only by helping and receiving help in return from one another that they [van Helsing, Mina, Harker et al – the Crew of Light] are able to defeat the monster. The thing that wants to eat them up, destroy them. Everyone in this strange little meeting room is on my team now.”

As she reflects on her own situation, images surface of her mother, in hospital one morning after falling drunk over a wall (“Skull fracture, a small one”). Smirnoff Blue in Hollyford alongside a Beefeater gin bottle, empty, on her own kitchen counter.  “For a second I’m so angry, so consumed by the irony, my lip curls up in a growl in the darkness.” If this was a film, there’d be a flashbacks, maybe even a montage.

And here, the book turns, the mood shifts, the chaos subsides. At first she is “bare, flayed, missing a layer.” But soon, “sitting watching the Sky Tower, I start to feel my outlines. A woman in a city, relatively blameless for the first time in ages. There is less and less to be afraid of.”

On an ordinary bus ride through Grey Lynn after a meeting she feels “a fierce clean joy that comes out of nowhere” and she no longer feels the terror of life. She watches ordinary people and doesn’t hate them the way she used to: “I am just a person among people, no better and no worse. I am nearly six months sober.” Her mother quietly marks the occasion by planting a white hydrangea and sending her photos of it – a sweet, peaceful gesture in their turbulent relationship.

It’s when she has her daughter that she is most acutely aware of the complicated feelings that come with it. She sees flashes of herself slapping her mother, scared that the pattern will repeat. And there are patterns everywhere in this story, which is why ‘becoming my mother’s daughter’ is so fraught, so laden with meaning.

You’d never wish material this good for a memoir on anyone. It’s complex, thrilling and raw

Time collapses; she sees and feels the tragic layers – Carol’s mother, deeply depressed, walking into a freezing river at nine months pregnant (thankfully coming out again, but unable to care for the baby once born), and Carol herself “coming down on the train from Dublin, her arms empty” after losing a baby, a baby that was itself a source of shame, and now of a grief that must be supressed for life.

Her mother opens up to her suddenly, when she visits with Eve as a baby, about her first birth, the one they’ve never been able to talk about. Noelle sees it in her mind, describes it on the page, an extraordinary act of empathy and imagination as her mother talks about asking an indifferent doctor for an epidural. “’Did it work?’ I kept my voice steady, like it’s all right to be talking about this, finally. Like the world won’t crack and crumble.”

The writing is heart-breakingly beautiful at times. Each vignette ends with an arresting image, of the moon, or the city lights, or roses “still curled up tight, waiting for sunrise”. But it’s also visceral – there is piss, and vomit and moss and mildew, the stink of disinfectant and dogshit caught in the wheels of a stroller. Each scene is rich in sensory details, with light – sunlight, moonlight, artificial light – carefully recorded with the eye of a cinematographer alert to mood and the effect of the sunbeam falling just so.

As I finish the book, I find myself turning to Instagram, looking for clues to the story, for evidence of the photographs Noelle describes taking in the book. And there she is: Noelle, pregnant in her purple dress in the photo she hates her mother commenting on; Noelle and daughter Eve under the fish weathervane of Shandon on the dogshit walk; her wedding day, in killer boots; Carol posing beneath a dahlia as big as her head, with pink hair and sharp eyes; Noelle’s husband John dwarfing Carol – she is unbelievably tiny – and the perfect image of her mother that closes the book, posing in Noelle’s fur coat.

I feel like I’ve gotten to know Carol. The state of her. So angry, so bitter, so infuriating, so unbelievably charismatic and funny, tiny and defiant even at the last. And then I find their last selfie (“…my eyes in the photos are red and swollen. She looks like she’s dead already”) as she is saying goodbye.

You’d never wish material this good for a memoir on anyone. It’s complex, thrilling and raw. It even has a perfect beginning, middle and end. It’s the opposite of comfort reading. And yet the ending is so tender, peaceful. At one point Noelle evokes Carrie Fisher, and it’s deliberate of course, given Fisher’s own writings about her mother. Suddenly I want a book about mother/daughter relationships in books and culture and I want Noelle to write it. I want that vampire novel too.

Grand: Becoming my mother’s daughter by Noelle McCarthy (Penguin, $36) is available in bookstores nationwide.

Our week-long coverage of the best book of the year has featured a long excerpt,  and an even longer interview.

Rachael King has recently returned to the most important thing about literature - writing it - after a long, brilliant and successful tenure as co-director of the Christchurch WORD literary festival. She...

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