A Ghost in the Throat

By Doireann Ní Ghríofa

A Ghost in the Throat
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An Post Irish Book Awards Nonfiction Book of the Year • A Guardian Best Book of 2020 • Shortlisted for the 2021 Rathbones Folio Prize • Longlisted for the 2021 Republic of Consciousness Prize • Shortlisted for the James Tait Black Biography Prize A New York Times ... Read more


Overview

An Post Irish Book Awards Nonfiction Book of the Year • A Guardian Best Book of 2020 • Shortlisted for the 2021 Rathbones Folio Prize • Longlisted for the 2021 Republic of Consciousness Prize • Shortlisted for the James Tait Black Biography Prize A New York Times New & Noteworthy Title • Longlisted for the 2021 Gordon Burn Prize • A Buzzfeed Recommended Summer Read

When we first met, I was a child, and she had been dead for centuries.

On discovering her murdered husband’s body, an eighteenth-century Irish noblewoman drinks handfuls of his blood and composes an extraordinary lament. Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill’s poem travels through the centuries, finding its way to a new mother who has narrowly avoided her own fatal tragedy. When she realizes that the literature dedicated to the poem reduces Eibhlín Dubh’s life to flimsy sketches, she wants more: the details of the poet’s girlhood and old age; her unique rages, joys, sorrows, and desires; the shape of her days and site of her final place of rest. What follows is an adventure in which Doireann Ni´ Ghri´ofa sets out to discover Eibhlín Dubh’s erased life—and in doing so, discovers her own.

Moving fluidly between past and present, quest and elegy, poetry and those who make it, A Ghost in the Throat is a shapeshifting book: a record of literary obsession; a narrative about the erasure of a people, of a language, of women; a meditation on motherhood and on translation; and an unforgettable story about finding your voice by freeing another’s.

Doireann Ní Ghríofa

Doireann Ní Ghríofa is a poet and essayist. In addition to A Ghost in the Throat, she is author of six critically acclaimed books of poetry, each a deepening exploration of birth, death, desire, and domesticity. Awards for her writing include a Lannan Literary Fellowship, the Ostana Prize, a Seamus Heaney Fellowship, and the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature.

Excerpt

The baby sleeps in a third-hand cot held together with black gaff tape, and the walls of our rented bedroom are decorated not with pastel murals, but with a constellation of black mould. I can never think of a lullaby, so I resort to tunes from teenage mixtapes instead. I used to rewind ‘Karma Police’ so obsessively that I wondered whether the brown spool might snap, but every time I pressed play the machine gave me the song again. Now, in my exhaustion, I return to that melody, humming it gently as the baby glugs from my breast. Once his jaw relaxes and his eyes roll back, I creep away, struck again by how often moments of my day are lived by countless other women in countless other rooms, through the shared text of our days. I wonder whether they love their drudge-work as I do, whether they take the same joy in slowly erasing a list like mine, filled with such simplicities as:

School-run
Mop
Hoover Upstairs
Pump
Bins
Dishwasher
Laundry
Clean Toilets
Milk/Spinach/Chicken/Porridge
School-run
Bank + Playground
Dinner
Baths
Bedtime

I keep my list as close as my phone, and draw a deep sense of satis- faction each time I strike a task from it. In such erasure lies joy. No matter how much I give of myself to household chores, each of the rooms under my control swiftly unravels itself again in my aftermath, as though a shadow hand were already beginning the unwritten lists of my tomorrows: more tidying, more hoovering, more dusting, more wiping and mopping and polishing. When my husband is home, we divide the chores, but when I’m alone, I work alone. I don’t tell him, but I prefer it that way. I like to be in control. Despite all the chores on my list, and despite my devotion to their completion, the house looks as cheerily dishevelled as any other home of young children, no cleaner, no dirtier.

So far this morning, I have only crossed off school-run, a task which encompassed waking the children, dressing, washing, and feeding them, clearing the breakfast table, finding coats and hats and shoes, brushing teeth, shouting the word ‘shoes’ several times, filling a lunchbox, checking a schoolbag, shouting for shoes again, and then, finally, walking to the school and back. Since returning home, I have still only half-filled the dishwasher, half-helped my son with his jigsaw, and half-mopped the floor – nothing worthy of deletion from my list. I cling to my list because it is this list which holds my hand through my days, breaking the hours into a series of small, achievable tasks. By the end of a good list, when I am held again in my sleeping husband’s arms, this text has become a sequence of scribbles, an obliteration which I observe in joy and satisfaction, because the gradual erasure of this handwritten document makes me feel as though I have achieved some- thing of worth in my hours. The list is both my map and my compass.

Now I can feel myself starting to fall behind, so I skim the text of today’s tasks to find my bearings, then set the dishwasher humming and draw a line through that word. I smile as I help the toddler find his missing jigsaw piece, clap when he completes it, and finally resort to the remote control. I don’t cuddle him close as he watches The Octonauts. I don’t sit on the sofa with him and close my weary eyes for ten minutes. Instead, I hurry to the kitchen, finish mopping, empty the bins, and then check those tasks off my list with a flourish.

At the sink I scrub my hands, nails, and wrists, then scrub them again. I lift sections of funnels and filters from the steam sterilizer to assemble my breastpump. These machines are not cheap and I no longer have a paying job, so I bought mine second-hand. On my screen, the ad seemed almost as poignant as the baby shoes story usually attributed to Ernest Hemingway –

Bought for €209, will sell for €45 ONO.
Used once.

Every morning for months this machine and I have followed the same small ritual in order to gather milk for the babies of strangers. I unclip my bra and scoop my breast into the funnel. It’s always the right breast, because my left breast is a lazy bastard: by a month post-partum it has all but given up, so both baby and machine must be fully served by the right. I press the switch, wince as it jerks my nipple awkwardly, adjust myself, and then twist the dial that controls the intensity with which the machine pulls the flesh. At first, the mechanism draws fast and firm, mimicking the baby’s pattern of quick suck, until it believes that the milk must have begun to emerge. After a moment or two the pump settles into a steady cadence: long tug, release, repeat. The sensation at nipple level is like a series of small shocks of static elec- tricity, or some strange complication of pins and needles. Unlike feeding the baby, this process always stings, it is never pleasant, and yet the discomfort is endurable. Eventually, the milk stirs to the machine’s demands, un-gripping itself somewhere under my armpit. A drop falls from the nipple to be quickly sucked into the machine, then another, and another, until a little meniscus collects in the base of the bottle. I turn my gaze away.

Awards

  • Rathbones Folio Prize 2021, Short-listed
  • Republic of Consciousness Prize 2021, Long-listed

Reviews

Praise for A Ghost in the Throat

"The ardent, shape-shifting A Ghost in the Throat is Ní Ghríofa’s offering . .. She pieces together Ní Chonaill’s life as if she is darning a hem, keeping the story from unraveling further. She interrupts herself to stuff a child into a car seat, wrestle a duvet into its cover, pick pieces of pasta off the floor . .. What is this ecstasy of self-abnegation, what are its costs? She documents this tendency without shame or fear but with curiosity, even amusement . .. The real woman Ní Ghríofa summons forth is herself. "—Parul Sehgal, New York Times

"A powerful, bewitching blend of memoir and literary investigation … Ní Ghríofa is deeply attuned to the gaps, silences and mysteries in women’s lives, and the book reveals, perhaps above all else, how we absorb what we love—a child, a lover, a poem—and how it changes us from the inside out. "—Nina Maclaughlin, New York Times

A Ghost in the Throat moves between past and present with hallucinogenic intensity as the narrator uncovers the details of the dead woman's life, each revelation deepening her own sense of herself as a writer and a woman and creating in the process a brave and beautiful work of art. ”—Republic of Consciousness Prize

"Electrifying and genre-bending . .. The book’s title conveys the uncanny feeling Ní Ghríofa had while writing the book, of having another’s voice emanate from her own throat . .. Ní Ghríofa’s quest sometimes feels like DNA-sleuthing, but with earth and texts taking the place of cheek swabs . .. The final act of reciprocity may be that one great work has ultimately spawned another. Ní Ghríofa’s book wouldn’t exist without Ní Chonaill’s poem, in the same way the poem wouldn’t exist without the death of Art O’Leary: both are rooted in agonizing, exquisite emotion. "—Globe & Mail

"A detailed tapestry that threads Eibhlín Dubh’s family histories with the author’s own translations of her poem from the Irish, Ní Ghríofa’s essayistic and intimate style recalls the inter-disciplinary perambulations of W. G. Sebald and the uncompromising feminism of Maggie Nelson . .. A Ghost in the Throat is a kaleidoscopic book of 'homemaking' that centers the intuitive knowledge of the body in order to learn to live—again, again, and again. "—Chicago Review of Books

"A thrilling voyage into the lore of Ireland, motherhood, marriage, blood, and guts . .. This is both a page-turner and a raw but erudite expression of a totally unique consciousness. "—Molly Young, New York Magazine

A Ghost in the Throat is something strange and very special: a ravishingly immersive telling of the way in which a poet and mother's obsession with a poet and mother who died centuries ago makes their different lives chime like bells. ”—Emma Donoghue

"A fascinating hybrid work in which the voices of two Irish female poets ring out across centuries. 'When we first met, I was a child, and she had been dead for centuries,' writes Ní Ghríofa in her first work of prose—and what a debut it is. Earning well-deserved accolades abroad, the book merges memoir, history, biography, autofiction, and literary analysis. .. Lyrical prose passages and moving introspection abound in this unique and beautiful book. "Kirkus (starred review)

"Ní Ghríofa is a poet through and through: in this prose work she writes lyrical sentences that make the physical world come alive . .. It was around Ní Chonaill’s time that a new poetic form was invented: the aisling, a dream vision of Ireland revealing itself to the poet as a beautiful woman in need of saving. Ní Ghríofa certainly gives us a new, feminist vision of a woman saving another woman, righting a historical imbalance that persists in women’s continued sacrifices. "—New York Review of Books

"History mutes women; it also depends on them. This paradox is at the heart of a A Ghost in the Throat, an extraordinary literary memoir that finds life in buried spaces . .. Feminist and feminine, A Ghost in the Throat gives defiant voice to hushed womanhood, in all of its pain and glory. Her images incandescent and brutal, Ní Ghríofa writes about the omens represented by starlings and about unearthed fragments of teacups, but also about caesarean scars, bleeding hangnails, and the consuming fire of her husband’s touch . .. A Ghost in the Throat is an achingly gorgeous literary exploration that establishes a sisterhood across generations. "Foreword Reviews (starred review)

“Part autofiction, part literary study, and part keen-eyed examination of domestic labour, Doireann Ní Ghríofa's strange, intense, and beautifully written A Ghost in the Throat is impossible to categorize. But that didn’t discourage the Irish and UK media from hailing it as the triumph it is, in which Ní Ghríofa uses one of Ireland's most iconic pieces of literature to tell her own story … Ní Ghríofa's obsessive interest in the piece and in its author, Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, is the lens through which she tells her story of motherhood, her own childhood, and more. ”—Open Book

"One of the best books of this dreadful year . .. Billed as a genre-busting blend of ‘autofiction, essay, scholarship, sleuthing and literary translation’, the book is an extraordinary feat of ventriloquism delivered in a lush, lyrical prose that dazzles readers from the get-go . .. When you write like this there is almost nothing a writer cannot get away with. "—Sunday Times

“Past versus present, blood versus milk, birth versus death, the Irish language versus the English: dichotomies abound, but the questions of women’s lived experiences and who history remembers link them all. ”—Paris Review

"Beautifully bewitching . .. A Ghost in the Throat is a female—and feminist—text in its protest against the historical and cultural erasure of women like Eibhlín Dubh . .. In this extraordinary book Ní Ghríofa reclaims Dubh for posterity, reanimating her in the face of a centuries-long historiography that persistently shuts-out so very many vital female texts. "—Lit Hub

"A book like this comes along once every few years and obliterates every clear definition of genre and form. I mean no exaggeration here: A Ghost in the Throat is astounding and utterly fresh. "—Irish Independent

"With luminous language and candid details, this book shimmers with honesty and scholarship. A truly original read. "—Sunday Independent

“Working from Eibhlín Dubh’s famous poem, 'Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire', and her own research, the author manages to get closer to this historic woman than any other person has ever done before … Her account is so vivid that we are almost there, with the pregnant Eibhlín Dubh on horseback, when she comes upon the body of her murdered husband and is so overcome with grief that she scoops up his blood and drinks it. ”—Clodagh Finn

“I wish to shout because this book is so profoundly beautiful and so beautifully profound—a female text with so much to say about the ways we serve others (our families, our homes, our obsessions) and the ways that serving shapes us, and how being alone is never being alone, and how imagination always leaves us a few truths short, but it is what we have, it is the best we can do, it may even be the best of us. Imagination yields. It has given us the genuine miracle of A Ghost in the Throat. ”—Cleaver Magazine

“Earnest, lyrical, and truly indelible. ”—Anakana Schofield, author of Bina

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