Minor Monuments is a collection of personal essays by Dublin-based writer Ian Maleney. They’re all set around his family’s small farm on the edge of a bog a few miles from the River Shannon. They explore issues around belonging, place, home, memory and nature and weave together Maleney’s personal experience with his musings on literature, art and, most frequently, sound. Maleney uses sound recordings to capture and explore the landscape of his childhood. Interspersed throughout the essays is the story of his grandfather, John Joe’s diagnosis and experience with Alzheimer’s.
“I wanted to listen hard to his final emergence; to capture his life in the last stage of becoming – to record the person still forming even as he began, contrapuntally, to unravel.”
Minor Monuments follows John Joe right through to his death and funeral. As the older man slowly loses his memories and connections to the landscape, Maleney is questioning his own sense of belonging and how he’s come to think of his home. He spends as much time as he can with John Joe, documenting his stories and paying careful attention to how he interacts with the world around him. At several points in the book, I had the sense that I was encountering a kind of teacher/disciple scenario, with Maleney patiently waiting for his grandfather’s lived inheritance to pass on to him.
“A wake like John Joe’s is not just an opportunity to remember these people and their stories, but also a chance to share and build on those memories, to pass them on and to bind them closer to the people who are living out their own stories in the same place.”
The prose is neat and sparse but imbued with warmth. It’s like reading someone’s meandering thoughts as they pick their way through a difficult time. It’s impossible not to imagine the two men -one old, one young- sat together companionably, their very different world experiences stretching between them, their mutual fondness apparent throughout. This is such a gentle book. It’s deeply respectful and extremely attentive, as you might expect from a writer used to recording sound.
I also deeply appreciated the portrayal of a rural, working man with dementia. It’s rare to see this character portrayed in literature and yet I frequently come across older men and women, like John Joe, who develop dementia whilst living in farmhouses and on land that’s been in their family for generations. For these people, a move to residential care can be nothing short of earthshattering. They are intrinsically bound to their land.
I love this book. It was my favourite non-fiction read of 2019 and I’ve pressed it upon many people since then. Maleney writes with honesty and tenderness, always holding his grandfather as an equal. There’s an awful lot of wisdom in both what he writes and how he writes it. These essays are rich with humility.
Minor Monuments was published by Tramp Press in 2019