SOMEONE, by Alice McDermott. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 232 pp.; $25.
After a seven-year hiatus, National Book Award winner Alice McDermott returns with her seventh novel, "Someone," a quiet tour de force of a story. McDermott, who grew up on Long Island and now lives in Washington, D.C., writes in lyrical yet methodical prose about an ordinary woman living an ordinary life, a seeming nonstory with heartache, joy, suffering and beauty all simmering beneath the scattered recollections that make up the novel.
"Someone," which was on the "long list" for this year's National Book Award, opens with the 7-year-old protagonist, Marie, waiting on the front steps for her father to return home from work. Marie is a "shy child, and comical-looking, with a round flat face and black slits for eyes, thick glasses, black bangs, a straight and serious mouth -- a little girl cartoon." The novel expands to describe the post-World War I Brooklyn neighborhood Marie inhabits, including various neighbors: Bill Corrigan, blind from being gassed in the war, who sits outside wearing a neatly ironed suit every day; the Chehabs, a Syrian-Irish couple whose daughter falls down a flight of stairs; and Marie's friend Gertrude, who loses her mother to childbirth and is forced to care for her siblings.
Much of the neighborhood -- including Marie and her family -- is Irish Catholic. Religion hovers over the story without suffocating it, and it is most notable with Marie's brother Gabe, who enters the priesthood as a young man but abandons the career a few years later. No explosions of emotion or drama punctuate this development. When a former parishioner approaches Gabe and Marie after Gabe quits the priesthood, Marie ponders on the "puzzle of Gabe's lost vocation ... for a moment I was more kin to this florid young stranger than I was to my brother, the failed priest, at my side."
Marie takes a job as an assistant to Mr. Fagin, the undertaker. Death and grief come and go during these years of Marie's young adulthood. She takes coats from family members as they arrive to view their loved ones' bodies. Undercurrents of uncertainty, of sadness, of familial strength pulse beneath Marie's recollections, but McDermott -- so skillful, so controlled in her writing -- never veers into melodrama.
The novel ends where it began, with the memory of her neighbor falling down the stairs as a young girl.
"She told me, poor sparrow, poor fool, We'll see what happens then," Marie recalls. The unknown is to be feared but not avoided. McDermott's tender characterization -- of women, husbands, sons, parents -- includes both the dark and the light within the simply ordinary.