Penelope Unbound by Mary Morrissy review – masterly alternative life of Nora Barnacle

<span>Photograph: Album/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Album/Alamy

In Dublin on 10 June 1904, in Nassau Street, James Joyce, aspiring writer and penniless flâneur, accosted a handsome young woman with auburn hair and a self-possessed stride. Her slightly comical name – though Joyce never thought it so – was Norah Barnacle. She had come from Galway the previous year to work as a chambermaid in Finn’s hotel, at the far end of Nassau Street. He asked her for a date, and she accepted. Thus began one of the most famous romantic partnerships in world literature.

Famous, and extremely unlikely. Joyce was highly educated, perhaps too much so, knew a number of languages including Danish, wrote verse and prose of exquisite sensitivity, and had no doubts as to his own genius. Nora – the “h” was the least of the things Joyce took from her – had left school at 12, was not much interested in books, was strong-minded, ever on for a bit of fun, and sceptical of Joyce’s hifalutin ways.

However, as the world knows, this seemingly mismatched couple were to remain together until the writer’s death in 1941, despite Joyce’s fecklessness, excessive drinking, and obsession with himself and his work. They left Dublin in 1904, stayed briefly in Paris and Zurich, and settled, albeit precariously, in Trieste. On their first night in that city, Joyce left Nora outside the railway station with their baggage while he went off to check on a promised job as a teacher at the international Berlitz school. He became involved, not uncharacteristically, in an altercation with some sailors and ended up spending the night in jail.

A sly allusiveness is in operation everywhere: references to and quotations from Joyce’s work enhance the reader’s pleasure

Starting from this incident, Irish novelist and short story author Mary Morrissy has written an alternative history of Joyce’s and Nora’s lives together, or, rather, not together. The result is a novel of great brilliance and inventiveness, a remarkably – and mysteriously – moving story of what might have been.

The book is written for the most part in what is known as free indirect speech, that is, a third-person stream of consciousness strongly imbued with the first-person accent and tone of a character or characters, in this case, Nora Barnacle. It is is a stylistic tour de force that Joyce himself would surely have admired: Nora’s voice is earthy, funny, by turns knockabout and melancholy, plain and lyrical, accepting and bitterly regretful.

Morrissy has read widely in the sources – Richard Ellmann’s masterly biography of Joyce, Brenda Maddox’s life of Nora, and various memoirs and studies, including some of Italo Svevo – but there is not the faintest glimmer of midnight oil. She writes with vigour, control and subtlety. A sly allusiveness is in operation everywhere: references to and quotations from Joyce’s work enhance the reader’s pleasure – Joyceans will have a field day.

The plot is extremely ingenious, and in places displays pure genius. So good is it that a reviewer will hesitate to reveal it in its many intricacies and, yes, epiphanies.

The premise is that on that fateful first night in Trieste, Nora – the fictional Nora – does not wait for Joyce to return, but goes off on a frolic of her own.

At the start, though, it is more desperate than frolicsome. In a plot move that would have delighted the undinist side of Joyce, Morrissy puts Nora in urgent need of a pee. She ventures into the station lavatory, and after relieving herself falls down in a faint – “swoon” was one of the early Joyce’s, unadvisedly, favourite words. However, it is not her Jim who comes solicitously to her rescue, but one “Meester Schmitz”, first name Ettore, whom she transliterates into “Hector Smith”.

In Bloom-like fashion Schmitz takes her home to his well-appointed villa on via Veneziana, where he introduces her to his wife, Livia. Needless to say, Signora Schmitz is doubtful about this distinctly un-waiflike waif her husband has brought in from the street. Nora, for her part, is uneasy in her new surroundings, though in a beautifully judged and deeply affecting touch, Morrissy has her thinking: “If it’s a place with servants, they’ll be on my side, won’t they?”

Related: Stephanie Merritt: Why Joyce’s words are for Nora’s eyes only

And, of course, she becomes a servant in the household herself, graduating in time to be a tutor in English to the Schmitzs’ daughter Laetitia and, eventually, to Hector Smith himself. The filthy-minded reader – and all proper readers are filthy-minded – will know at once where and to what this will lead. The most significant consequence is a little boy, by the name of Georgie.

The bulk of the narrative follows Nora’s increasingly complicated but wholly credible adventures, which end up with her back in Dublin as the owner of – you guessed it – Finn’s hotel. And it is to Finn’s there comes calling one day a gentleman identified by his card as “Signor Giacomo Joyce, Irish-Italian Tenor, Music Professor, Via Alice 16, Trieste”. Morrissy’s Joyce has given up all that “oul” writing business and become instead the professional musician Nora always thought he should be. And along with him is his wife, Amalia, née Popper, who in real life was the inspiration for Joyce’s short, ecstatic prose piece Giacomo Joyce. Amalia, pat as you please, embarks on a little Dublin odyssey, visiting the places mentioned in Joyce’s first book, Dubliners.

Penelope Unbound is a masterwork, and is most masterly in its concluding sections, when “Giacomo” Joyce and Norah – with the aitch restored – meet up again at last. These pages, so convincing and so affecting, demonstrate how a vastly gifted novelist, by applying her artistic imagination to the mere facts of lived lives, can persuade the reader of a transformed reality that is at once mundane and magical. Ariel could not have contrived it better.

Penelope Unbound by Mary Morrissy is published by Banshee Press (€15)