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Off the Shelf: Absolution

By Terry Kenneally

Off the Shelf: Absolution
By Alice McDermott
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. ISBN 9780374610487 2023 324 pp.

Alice McDermott has long been recognized for her portraits of mid-20th-century life, with a particular focus on Irish Americans. This writer first became familiar with her through her 1998 National Book Award for fiction, Charming Billy, a study of the lies that bind and weight of familial love.

Her fans may be startled then to find themselves plunged into 1963 Saigon at the start of her new novel, Absolution. The primary narrator is Patricia Kelly (Tricia) and her husband Peter, a naval intelligence officer. They are Irish American New Yorkers.

McDermott opens with an epigraph from The Quiet American, Graham Green’s 1955 indictment of catastrophic blundering in post-colonial Vietnam. She delves into the lives and activities of the blunderer’s wives during the last era in American life when being a “helpmate” was seen as a worthy fulfillment of feminine ambition.

The other woman whose life this story is about is Charlene, a practiced corporate spouse and mother of three, a talented hostess and determined altruist, on a mission to relieve the “wretchedness” she sees all around her in Saigon.

Tricia is a starry-eyed newlywed who, following a miscarriage, is swept up by Charlene into her cabal of other well-dressed do-gooder American wives who descend on hospitals, orphanages, and a leper colony, determined to relieve suffering no matter the cost.

The story is told in retrospect from a distance of 60 years in the form of letters between an older, widowed Patricia and Charlene’s daughter, Rainey, long after Charlene’s’ early death. As the two relive their shared experience in Saigon, they are forced to come to terms with the way their own lives have been shaped and stunted by Charlene’s “inconsequential good.”

The debacle of American involvement in Vietnam might easily have over determined McDermott’s story and it is a measure of her skill that Absolution maintains an oblique relationship to the war. I rate this a TOP SHELF read.

To see more of Terry’s Off the Shelf columns, go HERE

Terry Kenneally

Terry Kenneally

*Terrence J. Kenneally is an attorney and owner of Terrence J. Kenneally & Assoc. in Rocky River, Ohio. He represents insureds and insurance companies in insurance defense through the state of Ohio. Mr. Kenneally received his Masters from John Carroll University in Irish Studies and teaches Irish Literature and History at Holy Name High School.


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