I AM MARY DUNNE (1968) by Brian Moore

Karen of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon of Stuck in a Book regularly celebrate work published in a particular year. And this time it’s 1968, which I couldn’t resist as it’s when I was born. My choice is the thirteenth novel (though some would say sixth, see below) by Brian Moore, a meditation by a thrice married woman on her life thus far.

I offer this review for Simon and Karen’s The 1968 Club at Stuck in a Book; and Friday’s Forgotten Books meme run by Patti Abbott at her fab Patinas blog.

First off, here is Simon to tell us about The 1968 Club:

The idea is that we all read and review books published in the same year, and – together, collaboratively – we can build up a really detailed picture of a year in books. I’ll host links to all new reviews (and feel free to do some reading in advance!) – novels, poetry, short stories, non-fiction, drama, everything is welcome. Books in translation also strongly encouraged, particularly if they were published in the original language in 1968 – but feel free to make up your own rules! For more information, visit Stuck in a Book.

“I am no longer Mary Dunne, or Mary Phelan, or Mary Bell, or even Mary Lavery. I am a changeling who has changed too often and there are moments when I cannot find my way back.”

Brian Moore (1921-1999) had a multi-faceted career, one that spanned several phases and countries. Born in Belfast, one of eight children, he served in North Africa, Italy and France during the Second World War before emigrating to Canada in 1948, ultimately taking up Canadian citizenship. Working initially as a journalist, he made a name for himself as a novelist with The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne  in 1955, though by then he had already published several thrillers, some appearing under the pseudonym  ‘Bernard Mara’ though the best known of them, Intent to Kill (filmed in 1959) appeared under his ‘Michael Bryan’ byline. In 1959 Moore moved to New York and stayed there until 1967, when he divorced his first wife, after which he moved to California. I am Mary Dunne, while clearly very Joycean in its depiction through an interior monologue of a day in the life of its protagonist, is also highly autobiographical. Like the author, Mary is a Canadian living in New York who was brought up a Catholic but has since been divorced. Mary is in fact on her third marriage but after an embarrassing moment at the hairdresser when she forgot her most recent married surname (Dunne is her maiden name), she starts to revisit various events from her life thus far.

“And Julie Harris smiled and muttered something, allowing, I suppose, as how she was Julie Harris.”

Mary was brought up a Catholic in a small village in Nova Scotia but ultimately left and pretty much cut herself off, apart from the occasional letter, from the brother and mother she left behind. She has become an actress and lives in New York but is not much of a sophisticate – there is a great moment when she runs into the actress Julie Harris, the star of The Haunting and East of Eden and gushes just as any of us mere mortals might (incidentally, Harris also get mentioned in Moore’s later wonderful work, The Mangan Inheritance).

“I am, always have been,a fool who rushes in, a blurter-out of awkward truths, a speaker-up at parties who, the morning after, filled with guilt, vows that never again, no matter what, but who, faced at the very next encounter with someone whose opinion strike me as unfair, rushes in again, blurting out, breaking all vows.”

Graham Greene once called Moore “my favourite living novelist” and it is superficially easy to see the connections between the two with their shared interest in Catholic themes, the use of the thriller formula and strong ties to the cinema. All of this is true but where I think Moore very much supersedes Greene is in the depth he brings to the depiction of his female characters. Greene’s protagonists are in fact pretty much exclusively male (Sarah in End of the Affair is the obvious exception, but she is depicted exclusively though male eyes). Moore however, in such books as  Judith Hearne as well as The Doctor’s Wife and Cold Heaven, exhibited a sensitivity that is all his own. And this is especially true of Mary Dunne, with its touching portrait of a neurotic woman trying to figure out what she may have lost in her life so far, haunted by two deaths, one of which she feels guilty about. This book was in many ways a turning point for Moore, when his limpid and precise prose style truly became distinctive, creating a voice and sound that he would retain for the rest of his remarkable career, whether adapting it to suit stories set among terrorists in Northern Ireland or 17th century priests. This is an exceptional novel by a great writer. For a more detailed analysis, please visit John Self’s Asylum.

As a short epilogue, as this is a blog mainly devoted to mystery and suspense, I just thought I would flag the ‘pulp’ novels Moore wrote in the 1950s at the beginning of his career.

Brian Moore’s early pulp fiction:

Wreath for a Redhead (1951) (U.S. title: Sailor’s Leave)
The Executioners (1951)
French for Murder (1954) (as Bernard Mara)
A Bullet for My Lady (1955) (as Bernard Mara)
This Gun for Gloria (1956) (as Bernard Mara)
Intent to Kill (1956) (as Michael Bryan)
Murder in Majorca (1957) (as Michael Bryan)

Moore was, it is fair to say, a bit embarrassed about these examples of “left hand” work and didn’t include them in his standard bibliography. In many ways this is reminiscent of Graham Greene’s differentiations between his novels and his ‘entertainments’ though in his later books his use of the thriller mode made the distinction pretty meaningless. I think this is the same for Moore, who used the thriller formula in some of his very best later novels.

If you want to know more about Moore’s work in the pulps, then your man is Brian Busby and you should visit his blog, The Dusty Bookcase.

And here is Moore’s “literary” bibliography, the one you would normally find tucked away in his novels:

The novels of Brian Moore (thrillers marked with **)

  • The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955)
  • The Feast of Lupercal (1957)
  • The Luck of Ginger Coffey (1960)
  • An Answer from Limbo (1962)
  • The Emperor of Ice-Cream (1965)
  • I Am Mary Dunne (1968)
  • Fergus (1970)
  • The Revolution Script (1971)
  • Catholics (1972)
  • The Great Victorian Collection (1975)
  • The Doctor’s Wife (1976)
  • The Mangan Inheritance (1979)
  • The Temptation of Eileen Hughes (1981)
  • Cold Heaven (1983)
  • Black Robe (1985)
  • The Colour of Blood (1987) **
  • Lies of Silence (1990) **
  • No Other Life (1993)
  • The Statement (1995) **
  • The Magician’s Wife (1997)

Moore also wrote several screenplays, most famously a slightly uneasy collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock, Torn Curtain (1966). Of the adaptations of his novels for the screen, I would especially recommend Black Robe (with Daniel Day Lewis working from a screenplay by Moore), The Statement (adapted by Ronald Harwood and starring Michael Caine) and the unfortunately hard-to-find adaptation of Cold Heaven directed by Nicholas Roeg and released in 1991. Never released on DVD as far as I can tell (though it was out on VHS), you can stream it online via Amazon.

***** (4.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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25 Responses to I AM MARY DUNNE (1968) by Brian Moore

  1. tracybham says:

    This sounds very good, Sergio. You know I don’t read much fiction that is not mystery, science fiction, or fantasy, but this might be worth a try. Excellent review and overview of the author’s writings.

  2. Margot Kinberg says:

    This does sound like a fine read, Sergio. She sounds like an interesting character, and I always think it’s as well to go outside one’s usual reads now and again. Glad you enjoyed it.

  3. Patti Abbott says:

    One of my absolute favorite writers. Thanks for remembering him so fully. Brian will be pleased indeed.

  4. realthog says:

    A stupendous resource on Moore, Sergio: Many thanks indeed. I think this is one of those rare blog posts that’ll stand in the long term as a piece of outstanding scholarship.

    That said, I have to confess that, after reading a couple of Moore’s novels, I had to relinquish him as an author not for me. On the other hand, that was a long while ago: your essay inclines me more to give him another try.

  5. So glad you could join in Sergio, and so interesting to hear the parallels you draw with Greene. I happen to think that some of those he regarded as just entertainments are actually finer than many other authors’ serious works. I’ve never read Moore but I’ll certainly keep an eye out!

    • Thanks Karen, really glad to be able to participate as this is will be one of the last posts at Fedora for quite a while. Really hope you give Moore a try, a superb and very varied writer.

  6. neeru says:

    What a fine review, Sergio. I loved Moore’s Judith Hearne but haven’t read anything more by him. Time to read another of his – I think I have The Doctor’s Wife somewhere on the bookshelf. Had no idea that he had written mystery novels too. Will try to get a copy of them too.

    • Thanks very much Neeru – definitely thrillers rather than mysteries I would have to say on the whole – I really liked Doctor’s Wife (it is fairly sexually explicit by the way, not sure how you feel about that, but it is completely justified in context)

  7. I’ve only read a couple of Greene’s books but I liked them. Maybe I’ll like Brian Moore too. Have to admit, I’m not, lately, doing much ‘serious’ reading but I’m still adding names to my ‘list of authors to try later when I’m out of my current mood’ – you know how that goes. This is, by the way, a wonderful ‘overview’ and a terrific review – and as usual, enjoyed reading it. Again, I say, Sergio: you should write a book on films and/or books or one of each. 🙂

    • Thanks very much Yvette, you are always such a tonic 🙂 Moore is not a ‘light’ read by any definition, even his thrillers are pretty serious. Black Robe is especially good and the movie with Daniel Day Lewis also stands up very well.

  8. I’m a big fan of Brian Moore’s work! I’m glad your excellent review shows what fine work he produced. Now I have an overwhelming impulse to drop everything and read some Brian Moore!

  9. Matt Paust says:

    Fascinating review, Sergio, and thanks to the bibliography I must rush my fingers off to Amazon and download the Kindle version (if such exists) of murder in Majorca, where I saw my one and only bullfight many years ago.

  10. Jonathan says:

    I also read ‘Mary Dunne’ for the 1968Club and really enjoyed it. It was my third book by Moore and I have more in the pipeline. Thanks for the extra info and links.

  11. Simon T says:

    This sounds really interesting. Moore is one of those writers I’ve been intending to read, without really knowing what sort of writer he was. It sounds like he was certainly varied! I have The Lonely Passion of… on my shelves waiting.

  12. Pingback: #1968Club – Stuck in a Book

  13. Brian Busby says:

    I don’t know how I missed this, Sergio, but I did. Thank you for the kind words. I think I Am Mary Dunne is Moore’s masterpiece. Coincidentally, the week you posted this I gave a talk in which Moore was mentioned several times. At the end of it all, during the Q & A that followed, a woman asked what I thought of the novel, adding “I never thought a man could write with such understanding of women.”

    • Thanks so much for that Brian – must admit, I am tempted to agree. But I always get jazzed when I read his work – a great author is a great author, it is always so fulfilling to enter their world.

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