We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas Review

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<i>We Are Not Ourselves</i> by Matthew Thomas Review

One of the epigraphs of Matthew Thomas’s sprawling debut novel, taken from a Stanley Kunitz poem, reads as follows: “Darling, do you remember the man you married? Touch me, remind me who I am.”

In Thomas’s brutally honest history of the fictional Leary family, characters in question forget their identities, as the title itself—a line from King Lear—hints. The book reads so intimately, though, a reader feels the exact opposite when you close the book.

You can’t forget them.

The heart of We Are Not Ourselves, Eileen Tumulty, is the only child of Irish immigrants who mean well but drink too much. From an early age, Eileen wants more from life. She dreams of bigger houses, more lush neighborhoods. Her vision of domestic bliss and all her seemingly material desires might seem trivial to some, but Thomas makes her such a sympathetic character that we never think of her as selfish. Her dreams for a better life feel universal, even distinctly American, in this context.

Thomas confronts head-on a stark, often-overlooked fact—the economic component of the American dream is perhaps the most crucial. Eileen works her whole life as a nurse, and at times she appears to be a cold character, obsessed with class relations and consistently wondering what others think of her. Meanwhile, she stiffly passes silent judgment on them. Thomas exposes the inner workings of a mind some might find morally questionable, but even more he exposes how much love Eileen has stored inside.

The story gets traction when Eileen marries Ed Leary, a research scientist unlike any man she’s met. Soon, Connell, their only child, comes along. Family life proceeds in a seemingly ordinary, unglamorous way, and Thomas charts the lives for decades. We often find the Learys’ financial situation at the forefront of his narrative—at times the story seems so steeped in realistic facts and logistical information it reads like a detailed history of an actual family. Thomas crafts his sentences and uses language in such a way that even reading about the Learys’ bills feels gripping. In fact, it starts to feel essential.

The short chapters read like vignettes or short prose poems. They intertwine but could stand alone. Thomas creates some truly unforgettable scenes. One vividly memorable moment comes when Connell visits his father’s classroom at the community college. Another, late in the book, describes a Christmas party when Connell tragically tries to plan a surprise for Eileen.

On top of it all we find Thomas’s alluring prose, often depicting the simplest and most heartbreaking moments. Here, Eileen contemplates middle age:

She was taken back to her bed when she was a child, when she would like awake listening to her parents in the living room rehearsing their fixed roles after her father had returned from the bar, and she thought, No time has passed since then. I’m there right now. She remembered examining her hand then as well, and the only thing to differentiate this moment from any of a hundred in the past—the only thing that reassured her that the loop of her life wasn’t about to start over again—was the crenellated landscapes of wrinkles around her knuckles, which she ran her fingers over, feeling their washboard knobbiness.

The intensity of the narrative increases as a reader goes deeper into the novel. Marketers and some reviewers tease the “unspeakable loss” in these pages, but Thomas handles his big reveal with careful calculation. Once it comes, it seems at once so obvious … but still such a mystery … that a reader marvels how he managed it.

Even so, the novel could lose a hundred pages or so. The opening feels rushed, the middle prolonged, meaning the book doesn’t quite efficiently manage its considerable length as skillfully as, say, Donna Tartt did with The Goldfinch. The strength of Thomas’s characters and storytelling skills still carries the reader through on an immensely enjoyable and emotional ride.

Thomas wrote We Are Not Ourselves during the course of 10 years while working as a high school English teacher in New Jersey. He speaks openly about his influence from authors in his own curriculum—we find titles for novel sections taken from lines in The Great Gatsby and the poetry of Robert Lowell, Alan Dugan and Robert Hass. Like those writers, Thomas displays an astute ability at putting emotional truths into narrative form.

The end result, a massive family history, might be too prolonged, and a reader could justifiably feel the huge narrative means Thomas can’t decide on a primary focus. We like to ask: What’s the book about? Alcoholism? Disease? Tumultuous marriages? The strain of parent-children relationships?

Try all of the above. And more.

Through one family, Thomas shows us the American journey—daily life with all its complexities, the gritty stories people live and the unseen heroes who endure them. Thanks to Thomas’s excellent novel, they can now take center stage.

John Riti is a Paste intern and a recent graduate of Truman State University.