Elisabeth Sheffield uses exquisite language and control over a palimpsest of mixed genres in Ire Land (a Faery Tale). She vacuum-seals a layered plot into a fantasy world of comfortable relationships within a morality-play type story that hints at, then rejects any expected outcome for the main character, Sandra Dorn. Sheffield builds a world where fantasy and reality challenge each other for space in every aspect of Dorn’s truly lived life. But finding Dorn does not end with learning how she lived her life but by discovering the intent of the curator of her story.
We meet Sandra Dorn in a series of emails. She writes updates and ruminations on her life, then sends them to madmaeve17, a member of an unnamed support group. The comfortable nature of using the epistolary genre led me to trust I was reading the truth because after all, it is the actual words of Sandra Dorn. But Sheffield immediately questions this comfort and asks a question—What is accepted as truth? This isn’t a new question. The letters in the early American novel The Coquette by Hannah W. Foster are not real, the form was used to teach a moral lesson in an accessible form. There are also questions about how the curator of Emily Dickenson’s poetry affected the truthfulness of the author’s original intent. But Sheffield does not hint at the presence of a curator, but at the reasons for needing one. The first chapter of Ire Land (a Faery Tale) is a letter from Malachi McLaughlin, a coworker of Sandra Dorn, to Dorn’s child Kew. The letter describes a selection of Dorn’s last emails that are
…cut, pasted, and reorganized—tidied up, so to speak—to provide you with
an account of the last nine months of Sandra Dorn’s life, in her own words.
To be sure I also inserted a few editorial annotations of my own., here and
there, but only for the sake of clarification and occasional, ahem, amendment.
The emails are in Dorn’s words, and the curator is honest about the editing that took place. But Sheffield asks us to question whose intent (after all the tidying up) is being served in the packet.
Sheffield also explores the issue of the trusting the veracity of truth of Dorn’s memories. Dorn bluntly discusses her choices, failures, and successes, in her emails to madmaeve17, but there are quite a few convenient times she forgets names, places, and timelines of major events in her past. We wonder about Dorn’s intent. Is she a trustworthy narrator of her past? But do any of these hazy details matter? By inserting the editor’s annotations Sheffield reminds us that Dorn isn’t controlling who is reading or what is being read. McLaughlin may have included passages that reflect Dorn’s confusion to create a semblance of truth of her words, but I asked myself again—whose truth am I reading? Was there a reason McLaughlin needs to create doubt about Dorn?
The subject of Dorn’s memories stayed with me after I finished the book. Is she unreliable? Or does the curator of these emails create an unreliable narrator? I kept returning to the action of “tidying up” the emails before Kew was able to read them. Not what was left out, but why? Author Atika Qasim writes about the mistake of trying to solve problems without listening to what the marginalized need in the Philosophy Today article “The Not So Benign World of Photography.” She calls it a
defining mind-set … we possess the power to change the world, and therefore.
it’s a moral responsibility on our behalf to look after … those who cannot look
after themselves. We assume the subaltern cannot speak, we must do so on their
behalf … Reality, however, is very different.
Qasim discusses how the marginalized are more than capable of speaking, and screaming, for themselves, and how it’s become our choice not to listen. Problems do not disappear through the mind-set of misplaced benevolence. The person/s disappears instead. The idea of a structure of misplaced benevolence connected me to the threads of Sandra Dorn’s life.
For all her honesty and brashness, Dorn is a victim of this mind-set. When she moves to Ireland with her boyfriend Kev they marry and have a child. As they spend more time together, they begin to disappear: “… it was clear he was no longer my kinky, stink chasing Kev-boy, but an upstanding Daddy-man.” Kev is devastated motherhood doesn’t have the same effect on her: “I made you my wife and brought you home to my family only to learn you’re not a woman but an animal—you’ve no sense of decency a’tall.” When Boyfriend Kev disappears and tries to become Daddy-man Kevin, Dorn resists. Sheffield does not make this easy on us—it’s unexpected and uncomfortable to read.
The plot becomes easier to follow when Sandra Dorn accepts help from family or friends. The chapters that seem ‘easier’ to read are the times Dorn is separated from her own words and forced to try and live a false life. Her benefactor’s well-intentioned aid is useless to her. On one level her unruly behavior is her fault because she is responsible for her actions. It would be simpler and more comfortable to read this story as a judgement on how not to live a life. But who does that serve? Sheffield’s storytelling style points out how we are also guilty of misplaced benevolence. It’s uncomfortable when Sandra Dorn uses her own words because the plot seems disjointed and confusing. I lose trust in her and I want to control her narrative. Sheffield isn’t interested in the in the comfort of an easy read. She trusts her character and gives her the tools and vocabulary to successfully tell the truth of the story.
The mastery of Sheffield’s writing is—the more I thought I learned about Sandra Dorn, the less real she becomes. I learned to stop reading about her, and to try to listen to her. Even as Dorn disappears under the weight of her heavily edited words, Sheffield makes sure we hear her scream.
Ire Land (a Faery Tale), by Elisabeth Sheffield. New York City: Spuyten Duyvil, February 2021. 188 pages. $18.00, paper.
Noreen Hernandez lives in Chicago, and works as a teacher’s assistant in Oak Park, Illinois. Her reviews have appeared in Heavy Feather Review and Popular Culture Studies Journal.