The Nature of Water and Air by Regina McBride

Emily White of the New York Times Book Review says “Regina McBride writes in a shimmering and often hypnotic prose style, one that’s full of incantatory repetition…The Nature of Water and Air has an urgent melancholy about it — it casts an undeniable spell.”

I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I thought McBride managed to capture a particular time and place (1970s Ireland) extremely well. I was intrigued by the book’s opening lines: “There are silences all around my mother’s story.” But in some intangible way, I felt that the novel failed me.

The narrator of The Nature of Water and Air is Clodagh, a sensitive, intelligent girl whose life is touched by tragedy. Clodagh and her twin sister, Mare, live with Agatha, their emotionally distant mother, and Mrs. O’Dare, their housekeeper, in a crumbling manor house. Agatha is not a traditional mother- before she “settled” she was a tinker- part of a sub-culture of people who traveled in caravans, selling bits and pieces and camping in fields. What little affection Agatha does manage to share goes to Mare, who is very ill and subsequently dies. Clodagh spends the rest of her young childhood watching her mother from behind corners and through windows.

It is difficult to say much more about this book without spoiling some of its revelations.

McBride is a poet and it’s apparent in her prose. Her writing is lyrical and often quite lovely, but it also occasionally stands in the way of the narrative. While I can’t say that I loved this book, I certainly appreciated McBride’s talent. And in the end, despite some of the questions I had, I felt satisfied by the time I had spent with Clodagh.

Read a review

MY QUESTIONS

1. Although we know very little about Agatha, particularly in the beginning, what are her strengths and weaknesses as a mother? Talk about the other mother figures in the book: Mrs. O’Dare, Kitty and Lily Sheehy, Sister Seraphina.

2. Angus. His relationship to Clodagh is complicated, to put it mildly. Do you think he knew the true nature of their relationship when they first met? Was he right to leave Clodagh in the end?

3. Angus says: “How little hold we have on things, Clodagh. How easily the world leaves us with nothing.” Does Clodagh have nothing at the end of the novel?

4. Clodagh wants to know more about her mother’s history and is fascinated by the stories that her mother was a selkie. How does Agatha’s story inform Clodagh’s?

There are questions at the end of the novel, as well, but I was unable to find an online reading guide.

FOOD

SAUTEED MUSHROOMS WITH MELTED STILTON

1/2 pound mushrooms
1/2 pound Stilton cheese
2 large garlic cloves
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/3 cup heavy cream
Accompaniment: chunks of crusty whole-grain bread

Preheat oven to 425°F.

Trim mushrooms and halve if small or quarter if large. Crumble enough Stilton, not including rind, to measure about 1 cup. Force garlic through a garlic press.

In a 9-inch heavy skillet heat butter over moderately high heat until foam subsides and sauté mushrooms, stirring, until golden, about 2 minutes. Stir in garlic and cream and gently boil until slightly thickened, about 4 minutes. Season mixture with salt and pepper and divide between 2 shallow 1-cup gratin dishes. Mushroom mixture may be made 1 day ahead and chilled, covered.

Top mushroom mixture with Stilton and on a baking sheet bake in middle of oven until cheese is melted and bubbling, 5 to 10 minutes.

Serve mushrooms with bread for sopping up sauce.

Serves 2.

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