In Richard McCann’s Mother of Sorrows the short stories read more like memoir than fiction and each carries its own sadness. They link together well or can be read individually, both creating a picture of a single life and segmenting it into different time periods. The foreknowledge of the dead father (if you read the stories in order) gives “The Diarist” a heart wrenching sadness that surpasses the sorrow of any other piece. The image of the destroyed car and the angry father stand out brilliantly through McCann’s descriptive language and the intense connection he forms between the reader and the young boy. The mother, as a character, is much harder to define and pin down than the father, thus making her more realistic, more frustratingly human. Her presence tinges every aspect of the boy’s life and makes me wish he could pull away.
The brother, Davis, comes about slowly, developing a little more in each story until his life is told as well. “Fugitive Light, Old Photos” gives quick glimpses of Davis’ life, after his death. The mother is grieving again, she is constantly grieving throughout the book, and it is difficult to imagine her happy or fulfilled. “My Brother in the Basement” shows more about Davis; McCann uses the similarities between the two brothers seem to highlight their differences. Davis had been close to their father, a man’s man; while the narrator coveted his mother’s attention. Yet both are gay and it is the narrator who hides his sexuality from his mother, fearing her reaction after his brother’s disastrous coming out. The two brothers seem much closer in this story than in the previous ones, in “My Mother’s Clothes” they were opposed, although this may have been because Davis was resisting the urges the narrator gives in to.
The standout story is “Some Threads Through the Medina”. The drifting writing style perfectly depicts the narrator’s confusion and frustration with his growing sexual urges. He does not know where he is or where he plans on going but simply feels the desire to keep moving. The story is beautifully written and although it is difficult to keep straight at times I believe the intention is to give off the same feelings the narrator experiences. The reader feels a bit lost, floating from memory to memory with no idea of the places in between.
Knowing the bare bones of McCann’s life I see how closely the narrator in Mother of Sorrows resembles who he has been. With so many memoirs exposed as fabrication I understand the urge for caution, painting your own past is dangerous ground and with this book labeled fiction McCann is able to take liberties otherwise off limits. But perhaps if readers and critics alike could remove the restrictions on memoir, poignant stories like these could be embraced as the writer’s truth with no one quibbling about the details.