The air was a quicksand swallowing up their voices

Dear Dorothy,

I first heard about In Night’s City in a interview Eimear McBride gave to The BelieverMag in 2013, where she highly praised your book.  At the time, I had read (and loved) A girl is a half-formed thing, so I immediately bought the books Eimear had recommended. In fact, her writing style is quite similar to the one you adopted in this book.

Dorothy NelsonHere we are confronted with a disturbing story of incest, loneliness and family abuse, told in a fragmented and nonlinear way, by three unreliable narrators: Sara, her alter-ego Maggie, and her mother Esther. Alternating between these three different female voices, the narrative shifts in itself, going back and forth in time, mixing reality, hallucination and  dreams, and disorienting the reader at each new section.

The book is structured in eight short chapters, each dated and entitled after its narrator’s name. The story begins and ends in February 1970: the entire record of abuses suffered by Esther and Sara is revealed in the short span between the night of Sara’s father’s death and the night of his funeral, with flashbacks to 1958, 1965 and 1966. This structure , in which the narrative voices are isolated from each other, mirrors the troubled relationship between the main characters themselves: running like parallel lines, never touching or communicating.

From the beginning, we know that Sara has been raped by her father, who has also physically and psychologically abused Esther during all their years of marriage. Both women suffer under repression -and, in turn, when they look for solace in their mother-daughter relationship, they are only able of repressing each other even further. Esther, annihilated by a lifetime of frustration, relentless violence and neglect, fails to provide her daughter with any kind of support. Neglected by her mother, Sara then conjures up another self, Maggie, in order to endure the abuses she regularly suffers: Maggie, not Sara, becomes the displaced victim of the father’s incest. Ironically, Maggie, who narrates the  final section, is the only critical voice in this novel, the one who has never forgotten what others wanted Sara and Esther to forget.

Your choice for the experimental writing – which combines stream-of-consciousness, traditional dialogue and Irish vernacular – brings forth the disturbing and abject sense of everything that happened to these women, and mirrors the difficulties of expressing trauma. The highlight for me is precisely this choice: a writing style that is in itself disturbingly infected by the cruelty it is trying to portray.

Yours truly,


Ramon Casas. "Tired" (c. 1895-1900).
Ramon Casas. “Tired” (c. 1895-1900).

“The air was a quicksand swallowing up their voices quietly and effortlessly, leaving the emptiness as timeless and powerful as it had been. Because you could feel him in each one of them, their eyes hastily avoiding each other’s as they talked. Yet no one spoke about him. It was as it they silently said, “We’ll say no more about it now. We won’t cry.”

– Dorothy Nelson, In Night’s City

About the book

Reading Ireland Month

6 thoughts on “The air was a quicksand swallowing up their voices

  1. Dear Juliana,

    I’m happy to be able to read your letters again and I’d like to read this book, I’m really interested in these themes. I hope I can find it here. Thanks for sharing your readings with us 🙂


    Liked by 1 person

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