By Mike Hudson
MARY McGREEVY, by Walter Keady. MacMurray & Beck, Denver, Colorado. 260 pp. $24.
There’s a wedding scene toward the middle of Walter Keady’s excellent new novel, and it’s a wedding scene with a twist. Actually, twisted may be more like it. That’s because both the bride and groom, as well as the officiating priest — who also happens to be the bride’s brother — the parish priest himself and a goodly number of guests on both sides of the isle are deeply and madly in love, or at least in lust, with a comely ex-nun, the Mary McGreevy of the title.
Keady, a former priest who fashioned an impressive debut last year with his first novel, "Celibates & Other Lovers," makes this scene and most of the others here work by using a restrained prose style, an attention to detail and a compassion for his characters that is often lacking in much of today’s fiction. In the hands of a lesser writer, such material could easily have caromed down the path of unintentional comedy.
The novel begins in 1950 when Sister Mary Thomas jumps over the convent wall in Dublin and makes her way home to County Mayo to attend her father’s funeral. Once there, she decides not to go back, reclaims her family name and begins to work the family’s small farm by herself. The notion of a woman farmer, particularly a woman farmer who used to be a nun, quickly raises eyebrows.
The villagers of Creevagh are both scandalized and fascinated, especially the men, for whom the sudden appearance in their midst of a beautiful and independent woman is something of a shock. Before too long, though, they’re calling on Mary at her cottage in droves. The schoolteacher, banker, publican, her now-married childhood sweetheart and the aforementioned pair of priests all come courting. At least one woman, the rich and sophisticated Kitty Malone — she of a past that no one in the tiny village suspects — also joins the procession to win Mary’s heart.
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Mary plays them all like so many old fiddles, deciding early on that she hasn’t finally broken her commitment to the Church only to become involved in a perhaps equally restrictive commitment to another person.
Further scandal, not to mention sexual ambiguity, comes when Mary plays the male role of Christy Mahon in an amateur local production of Synge’s "The Playboy of the Western World," a part she gets as much for the director’s romantic interest in her as for her acting ability. But even this brouhaha pales once it’s discovered she’s intentionally gotten herself pregnant.
There’s something about Mary, all right.
Although she steadfastly refuses to say who the father is, the local populace — to say nothing of the archbishop himself — knows that it could be any one of a number of suspects, a fact that results in disaster for several characters. One husband ends up having to sleep in the barn, another agrees to his wife’s request for an annulment and one of the priests undergoes what could mildly be called a major crisis of faith.
Even when it’s disclosed who the real father is — and it’s something of a surprise — lives have been unalterably changed and the village will never be the same. Still, there’s no shortage of suitors willing to care for the lovely Mary and her newborn daughter.
As he demonstrated in his previous novel, the author has a knack for laying out a completely believable tableau of Irish country life during the years following World War II and then scratching at it just a bit, thereby showing that even in those days things weren’t as simple or bucolic as they appeared to be.
Walter Keady has successfully avoided the dreaded sophomore jinx here, surpassing his earlier effort to produce a delightful novel that manages to be both nostalgic and literate at the same time.