It’s a neat marketing ploy to pitch a creative project with a famous name attached, such as the play An Evening with Gary Lineacre by Arthur Smith and Chris England, the novel by Michael Cunningham The Hours featuring Virginia Woolf, or Peter Cary’s The True History of the Kelly Gang. Mary Morrissy goes one step further by not only writing a fictional account of James Joyce’s wife Norah Barnacle but adding a ‘what if’ element. What if they split up before the Irish novelist became famous and instead had a modest career as a singer? Norah meanwhile goes on to be herself rather than the muse of Joyce in Mary Morrissy’s Penelope Unbound.

James Joyce is most famous for his novel Ulysses in which the story concerns the events of one day in Dublin for Leopold Blook and Stephen Dedalus in particular, in an epic account of everyday life as a parallel to that of the epic journey of Odysseus in ancient Greece – latinised to Ulysses – whose wife Penelope is left behind and remains loyal to her philandering husband.

Penelope Unbound is in part a gossipy account of Norah Barnacle’s life and in particular her split from Joyce in Trieste in Italy after he is detained by the police and in part a derivative of Ulysses in style. Norah waits and waits and after fainting from the lack of food is taken in by an Italian family and eventually becomes a maid and then an English tutor. The circular novel begins at the end and then flashes back to give an account of her relationship and courtship with Joyce and what happened when he didn’t show up in Trieste. It is entirely believable if you accent Morrissy’s characterisation of Norah and the way she thinks, sees the world, makes judgements and interpretations of events – and more to the point how the author uses the narrative style of Ulysses to relate Norah’s journey. It’s a story of a penniless, partly educated and abused young woman seen as of little worth and of low status in turn of the century Dublin to one of a woman of means.

Without the largely third person stream of consciousness and free indirect speech that Morrissy uses as the voice of Norah and others the plot could be from Barbara Taylor Bradford or even some of Catherine Cookson’s plot lines. Taking the style of Ulysses though transforms the novel and creates a witty and amusing Norah with all her inner thoughts who is far brighter than James Joyce and those around her realise. As Penelope she doesn’t spend her days weaving and fighting off suitors while her Odysseus is away but gets on with creating a fruitful and fulfilling life. It’s funny, clever and an enjoyable read with the expectation of an eventual reunion sowed in the opening chapters. How different their two lives might have been in this ‘what if’ account had Joyce not been detained by Trieste’s constabulary is a hostage to literary history.  

Harry Mottram

The book was chosen for the Axbridge Four Seasons Book Club for the meeting in March 2024.

Penelope Unbound by Mary Morrissy was published in 2023. The author gives details of the novel on her website at

The main photo is from the film Nora made in 2000 about James and Norah’s relationship.