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By Lori McNeill

JUNE 7, 1999: 

The Mammy, by Brendan O'Carroll (Plume, Paper, $10.95).

IF YOU'RE LOOKING for a quaint, guileless story with all the charm of a bed and breakfast, the warmth of a cup of tea, and the lilt of an Irish accent, The Mammy is for you. The first in a trilogy by Irish playwright and stand-up comedian Brendan O'Carroll, The Mammy offers a light, funny and touching story of life, loss, friendship and family, and not in the least, of the strength of one woman. It's an enjoyable, if somewhat forgettable, tale.

The Mammy is a quick, effortless read; like the characters it introduces, its prose is uncomplicated and engaging. Laughter is the key on which this informal tale turns, as heroine Agnes Browne, a widowed working-class mother of seven, and her good friend Marion courageously face death, loss and everything else life throws at them. The Mammy evolved from a radio show and O'Carroll's comedy writing, as is apparent from any conversation involving the quick-witted Agnes. If there's any complaint, it's that the sadness transitions too quickly to silliness, undercutting what are potentially some of the novella's most powerful scenes.

Agnes Browne certainly has potential though, with her unassuming sense of humor, stiff upper lip and sincere love for her children. O'Carroll would do her the greater honor of straying a bit longer, and deeper, into the soul of this tough-but-tender woman, mother and friend. In the end, we're allowed to admire Agnes, but we know her only briefly, and then only through glimpses into the events and moments that make her. We see her clearly from the outside, but her inner life remains completely out of reach.

As Agnes attests herself, she doesn't have time to cry; but O'Carroll compounds the problem by making the reader laugh before she has a chance to empathize. Though Agnes' human side eventually shines through in her actions and in her children, it's a slow and incomplete process. Perhaps the two books to follow will use O'Carroll's formidable storytelling élan to a more mature and satisfying end.

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