Eileen’s Ashes: Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves

Pierce Scranton, Jr.

New York, NY: Simon & Schuster. 2014. 640 pages. $28.00.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

We Are Not Ourselves is a debut novel from Matthew Thomas, a promising young talent. It is also a painful and poignant look at an American family. The novel begins with Eileen Tumulty, a young girl from Queens, New York, forced to forsake her childhood to become the caregiver for flawed parents. Her mother is hospitalized for over a year, and then lapses into alcoholism. With Eileen’s prodding, she goes sober. She sparks in Eileen the desire for a better life as she recounts some of the homes she cleaned: “I looked in on women reclining on divans like cats that had supped from bowls of milk,” Thomas writes. “I didn’t begrudge them their ease. It wasn’t nice . . . It was—marvelous, is what it was.” Eileen wants her own home and her own, better station in life.

So she becomes a nurse. She carefully measures men who come by to court, but winds up falling for Ed Leary, a passionate teacher, sensitive yet “substantial.” After they marry she discovers Ed is also awkward, insecure—and will refuse promotions that would earn more money and improve their station. Through the everyday and mundane, the capriciousness of fate, we see that Eileen holds her family together. She gets her new house, her new station, but knows deep inside that she and Ed don’t belong. The demons of depression and obsessive-compulsive behavior gradually infiltrate Ed’s life. Worse, he becomes afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease and eventually dies.

There are kernels of brilliance, of observation, of clarity of writing throughout the novel. Most poignant are two sequences. In one, the Tumultys’ son, Connell, must confront the reality that the father of his memory is now a demented man. He is forced to stand naked in a shower with his father, stripped of dignity, and wash off smeared diarrhea. All the while, the father cries, “No. No. No!” We are left to decide if these are the cries of anguish from his remaining mind that his son should see him like this, or in his previous, neatly ordered world, that it has come to this. The second is a remarkably touching letter, written by Ed Leary to Connell when he still had his mind. It is a letter any son would hope to receive, telling him what it’s meant to have him as a son and how much he loves him.

We Are Not Ourselves is an apt title for this family drama. A daughter of a poor dysfunctional Irish family cannot escape her self-image, even though she achieves an expensive, fancy home. Her husband’s drive to be a perfect teacher only creates demons of self-doubt, anxiety, and depression in his quest for perfection. Their son Connell is an awkward teenager, fearfully growing up in one tough neighborhood, then striving to act cool at prep school, while ashamed of his parents and who they really are. Matthew Thomas captures the reality of a family trying to improve its lot, struggling with the untoward consequences of that ambition. We see, beneath it all, the constancy of love, loyalty, and support from Eileen that holds it together.

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