By Karinya Funsett
Mother of Sorrows|
By Richard McCann
Published by Pantheon Books
191 pages - $20
Released April 26
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Wednesday, May 4, 2005
"Mother of Sorrows" is a collection of short stories that Richard McCann has amassed over the last couple of decades. Most of the pieces have been previously published or anthologized, but McCann has skillfully tweaked them so that "Mother of Sorrows" reads more like a memoir than a collection of short stories.
The 10 interwoven stories are told in the first-person point of view by an unnamed narrator and center around his tragedy-prone family. The opening stories take place when the narrator is a young boy, where the reader is gently led through the narrator's youthful sexual awakening and self-discovery as a homosexual in 1950s suburbia. A tragic aura haunts the poetic prose of the book right from the start, foreshadowing things to come.
This is not a happy book. The characters do not lead particularly fulfilling lives or achieve great successes, and no one lives happily ever after. Within the stories, the narrator encounters multiple deaths in his family and witnesses loved ones struggle with AIDS and drug addiction. Perhaps the greatest tragedy is the one the narrator never speaks of.
There is a quiet suppression of the real issue facing the narrator throughout most of the stories. This is what makes the book both tragic and beautiful. The narrator speaks as someone who has had to hide his real identity (as a gay man) under a "normal" façade for years, and who is quietly looking to be understood and accepted. He envies those who can be bold and forthright with their sexuality, while at the same time understanding why he cannot be. It is because of his mother.
The narrator's mother, the "mother of sorrows," is the shadow that's cast over the stories, her presence simultaneously inspiring and repressing her son. The narrator describes her as a beautiful woman (though not a particularly good mother) who he has idealized and emulated. Her blatant disapproval of homosexuality forces the narrator to disguise himself in order to please her. The stories he tells are of a life lived quietly under her radar.
The stories are written in an unbelievably beautiful style. McCann has previously published a well-received collection of poetry titled "Ghost Letters" and his skills as a poet are evident in "Mother of Sorrows." The writing is not flowery, but is instead concise and exact. The book's 191 pages flow quickly and seamlessly - a feat not easily accomplished when the stories do not always follow chronological order - and there is a good balance between scene and inner monologue.
Dialogue is sparse but used effectively as McCann gives the reader just enough of each character to let their distinct voices come through.
Further proving McCann's skill is his ability to keep tragedy from overpowering the book. If it weren't for his loving attention to detail (the good and the bad), along with the refusal of the narrator to play the role of a helpless victim, the book could be devastatingly depressing. Though the tone is somber and serious, McCann is careful to highlight the beautiful things in life, even when they must be found in the midst of disaster.