Book Review: Kerri ní Dochartaigh’s CACOPHONY OF BONE

Just after the winter solstice of 2019, Irish writer Kerri ní Dochartaigh and her partner moved into a one room cottage deep in the centre of Ireland, along a disused railway line at the end of a long lane. In her latest book, Cacophony of Bone, ní Dochartaigh takes the reader on a year-long journey of self-exploration, writing, gardening, and life around the circle of time to the winter solstice of 2020.

Structured as a mix of journal entries, mini-essays, lists, and poems, Cacophony of Bone brings the reader inside the mind of a woman so attuned and open to the natural world that she is almost brought to her knees by the light: that which streams into the cottage they live in, the light that outlines the old milking barn and outhouse that populate a nearby field. “Today…the light that has enveloped the milking barn is such that I can see no possibility of leaving it…the light that is refracting off freshly born frost, against a backdrop of broken, abandoned machinery…is calling to me, holding me in place.”

Like me, she is also enamored of natural objects like the birds nests her partner brings her, and the pelvic bone and jaw bone she finds in the grass near her cottage. Every day she goes out with the dog, running or walking, and on some days goes wild swimming, literally immersing herself in the local landscape.

Because ní Dochartaigh’s heart is wide open to the world, she feels grief and joy in her bones in equal measure. Whether it’s a book or a sunset or the loss of a friend, she feels it keenly. “These days everything feels so achingly precious I could weep (and I do).” She cries and grieves throughout the book, but as time goes on it’s not so much a cry of grief but of being alive. After swimming in the Atlantic and listening to Edwyn Collins, for example, she writes, “Both these seemingly ordinary things leave me bawling my eyes out, which they never did before this year. Not sorrow, not joy: I think it’s being alive, just.”

While ní Dochartaigh’s heart is wide open to the world, her home is also permeable to nature. Moths collect on the screen door and inside the house, one of them landing on her pillow and sleeping next to her all night. The occasional bird enters the house from the nests that they’ve built just outside her front door, and must be shooed back out again.

While at the cottage, ní Dochartaigh grows her first garden, a way of tying herself to a place more deeply than she has ever done before. “This garden is the making of me, / and don’t I know it.”

The crux of the book is when ní Dochartaigh and her partner discuss having a child. They hadn’t discussed it previously, and she had always assumed she would have problems getting pregnant because of previous health concerns (“[I was] told my body was too broken to carry such a thing”), but they decide to try anyway. She does indeed conceive, and the book’s story widens to incorporate her impending motherhood. Suddenly there’s a third person in their little family of two, someone to look forward to and dream about. It is here that ní Dochartaigh’s language shines, as she writes “as the autumn unfolds, so too does my sense of the baby inside me as a gift as well as a call to action…I am struck by the responsibility and the beauty of it all, in equal measure.”

She also muses on the nature of time: is it circular or linear? Does it matter differently to men than women? “I am hungry for accounts of time experienced by women.” (emphasis hers) She considers the nine months during which she will gestate a child, “We have lived…in this single-roomed cottage together for nine months…I wonder…how the nine months ahead will feel in comparison.” She also writes, “I am…overcome by the feeling that there is nothing more exquisite and meaningful on this earth than the way we choose to spend our days. I am unable to be removed or neutral when it comes to talking about time. I think of what time means when it is lived in an altered state [such as] during pregnancy… recently I’ve begun to think of time as a curious creature, like the one growing inside me, that I might spend a lifetime trying to understand.”

A few lines stood out for me as someone with a chronic illness, making it feel like some of ní Dochartaigh’s ideas are universal. She quotes from Sinéad Gleeson’s Constellations: “Not being able to have the life you really desire creates a spectral longing for another existence. A ghost life…running alongside the one being lived.” I feel this keenly in my everyday life, and wonder what that ghost life would be like if I could just slide into it.

She also explores the way the Irish talk about emotions. Not as what you are, but something that is ‘upon you.’ “Sorrow is upon you…you are not sorrowful, you understand, as you continue about your day…You try to allow the emotions to simply be, to ride over you like a wave; to linger on your skin like woodsmoke, to come & go as they please like a season…” She emphasises this point by writing, “Promise this to yourself: I am not the way I feel.” I am not manic – a high is upon me. I am not depressed – depression is upon me. Some days these cloaks fall off me and I feel nothing upon me except lightness.

Cacophony of Bone is not just about nature, although nature is part of it. It’s about light & time, life & love, grief & motherhood, gardening & being whole in the world. Ní Dochartaigh’s insights arise from her open embrace of the world; the sense of rooting in place, if only for a year; and the attachments she forms to the land and it’s many faces between two winter solstices.

NOTE: My interview with Kerri will be in Orion Magazine in mid-November, to coincide with the November 14th release date of her book in North America.

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