Anakana Schofield, Malarky

Madness is one of fiction’s most enduring subjects, but it requires some finesse in order to be done justice. You can’t just push a character off the cliff of mental health and then catch up with them at the bottom. That’s cheap, and uninteresting besides. The real challenge is to document what happens to that person, second by second, on their way down—because no two falls are exactly the same.

This helps explain why Malarky, the debut novel from Anakana Schofield, an Irish-Canadian author and critic who calls Vancouver home, stands head and shoulders above many of its peers. And she’s got competition: in 2012 alone we’ve seen Ross Raisin’s Waterline, about the rapid self-destruction of a middle-aged Glaswegian widower, and Amelia Gray’s Threats, a chilling, stylized exercise in mood and faulty memory. Both of these books are very good, but Schofield’s is better.

Our hero is a woman plainly nicknamed Our Woman. She’s a housewife living in Ireland with her surly farmer husband; their son Jimmy has recently come out, only to go off suddenly to join the military. Yet the novel’s opening scene finds Our Woman in grief counselling, mourning both of them. What happened? The timelines turn out to be tied up in a triple knot, and they’re far from the only thing that needs untangling.

For one, Our Woman is confronted one day by someone who claims to have slept with her husband (the adulteress is insistent on the details, too: apparently, Our Woman’s husband has a secret armpit fetish). For another, she accidentally discovers Jimmy in the middle of his own sexual escapade, this one involving the neighbour’s teenage son. Her solution is to find a sympathetic Syrian security guard and re-enact both of these things at once. The logistics, as you can imagine, prove to be a challenge.

Malarky is written in loopy, stomping prose, but the clincher is how humane it is. Even with her deteriorating sanity, and even when she falls and lands awkwardly on a concealed flask of tea, Our Woman is never the butt of the joke. In fact, with her newfound sense of daring, she accidentally stumbles into the realm of feminism—and it’s a good look for her. When Jimmy insists his father’s mistress must be crazy, Our Woman takes him swiftly to task: “Men always think women have lost their minds.…I’d be very careful assuming that.” Kaboom!

That doesn’t mean, however, that she finds all the right answers. In fact, her most coherent conclusion about sex and adultery may well seem mundane to the rest of us. “[D]ifferent people inside different places at different times,” she thinks. “That was all it was. She had had a different man inside her at a different place and different time and now she was going home to put the potatoes on and think about it as they boiled.”

Yet, to Our Woman, this in itself is a triumph.

Biblioasis, 224 pp, $19.95, softcover

(review originally appeared in the Georgia Straight, May 10, 2012)